Who Were The Aryans & Their Relation With Zoroastrians
By by K. E. Eduljee
Aryans of the Avesta and Rig Veda
The Indo-Iranian group whose members composed the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta, and the Hindu scriptures such as the Vedas, called themselves Aryans (Airya/Airyan in the Avesta and Arya/Aryan in the Vedas).
The Zoroastrian and Hindu scriptures are the only known ancient texts that contain references to Aryans. Of these two sources, the Avesta contains the preponderance of references to being Aryan, a concept central to the Avesta and Zoroastrian heritage.
The next contemporaneous references are in the inscriptions of the Achaemenian Persians (see Achaemenian History as well as our page on Naqsh-e Rustam), and classical Greek texts such as those of Herodotus and Strabo [Aria, Arioi, Ariane etc.], where the the references are exclusively regarding the Medes’ and Persians’ancestry and their Central Asian connections.
Similarity in Avestan & Rig Vedic Languages
The languages of the two scriptures, the Zoroastrian Avesta and Hindu Rig Veda, are similar but not identical, indicating that at the time of their composition, the people of the Avesta and the Rig Veda were related and close neighbours – in a fashion similar to two provinces within one country – provinces where the people spoke two dialects of the same language.
The following is an example of the closeness of the Avestan Old Iranian and Rig-Vedic (Sanskrit) languages:
Old Iranian/Avestan: aevo pantao yo ashahe, vispe anyaesham apantam (Yasna 72.11)
Old Indian/Rig Vedic: abade pantha he ashae, visha anyaesham apantham
Translation: the one path is that of Asha, all others are not-paths.
[The Rig-Vedic translation of the Avestan was provided to this writer by Dr. Satyan Banerjee.]
For further information, please see the Avestan Languages page.
At the time the earliest sections of the Avesta and Rig Veda were composed, the Aryans were residents of the Aryan lands or Aryan nation, called Airyana Vaeja or Airyanam Dakhyunam in the Avesta and Arya Vartain the Hindu scriptures. In the Avestan and Hindu texts, Airyana Vaeja or Arya Varta was a beautiful but mysterious mountainous land (see Airyana Vaeja as Paradise). While the precise location of the original Aryan homeland is lost to us, we have been left with ample clues which allow us to draw reasonable conclusions about its likely location, the mountain regions of Central Asia.
We further discuss the possible location of Airyana Vaeja in our Aryan Homeland Location page. Airyana Vaeja and the other nations of the Avesta are further referenced and listed in the Aryan Homeland in Scripture page.
The name Airyana Vaeja was contracted over the years to Airan Vej, Iran Vej (in Middle Persian texts) and finally to Iran.
The two Indo-Iranian Aryan groups eventually ceased to be close neighbours. They separated and migrated to present day India and Iran, becoming Indians and Iranians in the process.
Therefore, as an added definition, the Aryans were those members of the Indo-Iranian family who originated in Airyana Vaeja or Arya Varta, the Aryan homeland.
Reasons for Aryan Migration
The reasons for the migration of the Aryans are discussed in the Aryan Homeland in Scripture page. The reasons for the separation of the two Aryan groups could have been a widening difference in their religious beliefs – beliefs that were antithetical to one another, but beliefs that nevertheless shared common roots. The separation is discussed further in the page on Aryan Religions. Climate change and a degradation of the food production capability of the original homeland could also have been a reason or an added reason.
The history of the Aryans is found in the scriptures of the original Aryans, the Avesta, the Vedas, supporting religious texts, and the legends as well – legends such as the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi. Historical evidence of Aryan trade and conquests provide supporting information.
The early history of Zoroastrianism is closely intertwined with the history of the Aryans – a history we examine in some detail starting with our page on the Prehistory of the Aryans.
Prehistory of the Aryans
We find the prehistory of the Aryans recorded in the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta (in particular the Zamyad Yasht 19), in Middle Persian texts, in the poet Ferdowsi’s epic, the Shahnameh or Book of Kings, and in the Hindu Scriptures, the Vedas.
The significance of the prehistory contained in these texts, is not necessarily a sense of recorded time, but rather a record of sequential human development that is unique amongst existing ancient literature. Unlike other ancient myths and legends, the individual reign of a legendary Aryan king, at times thousands of years in length, includes developments that correspond to archaeological / historical ages such as the Stone and Metal Ages. For instance, the developments during the reign of the first Aryan king, Gaya Maretan (see below) parallels what archaeologists and historians now call the Stone Ages. Therefore we can refer to the legendary reign of Gaya Maretan as the Stone Age of Aryan history.
It would be unreasonable to expect the prehistory to contain a detailed record of individual kings from the dawn of history. The names of the kings that were preserved by legend, were in all likelihood those whose reigns were noteworthy in some fashion, and the length of their reigns would have been expanded to include that of their less noteworthy predecessors and successors. As a consequence, the length of a legendary reign often spans the length of several human lifetimes.
In addition to a being a sequential record of human development, Zoroastrian texts also provide us with a sequential listing of early nations associated with the Aryans. Together with archaeological records, this information can be combined to construct a history of the Aryans.
Aryan Stone Age
[Gaya means life and maretan means mortal. In some sources, Gaya Maretan is the first mortal or human being. The name Gaya Maretan evolved to Gayomard (Pahlavi), and then Kayomars or Kaiumars (Persian).]
Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, complemented by the Farvardin Yasht 13.87, recounts that Aryan prehistory started with Gaya Maretan, founder of the Aryan nation. The Shahnameh states that he was the first Aryan King and that during his reign, people lived in the mountains (also see Aryan homeland location: Mountains – Hara Berezaiti) and wore animal skins and leaves. They gathered fruits and other plant foods. Animals were first domesticated, and the herding of cattle began.
During the age of Gaya Maretan, religion and religious rites were developed. According to the Avesta and the Shahnameh, Gaya Maretan was a Mazdayasni, a worshipper of Mazda or God. In the oldest Hindu scriptures, the Rig Veda, worship in a supreme God, Asura Varuna, preceded deva or polytheistic worship amongst the Aryans. (For further information on Pre-Zoroastrian Aryan religious practices, see our page on Aryan Religions.)
The Shahnameh tells us that Ahriman, the leader of the deva worshippers was envious of Gaya Maretan and wanted to seize Gaya Maretan’s throne, the throne of the Aryans. As a result, the first religious wars between the Mazda and deva worshippers took place during this period. At first the deva worshippers were victorious in a battle in which Gaya Maretan’s son Siyamak was killed. Gaya Maretan regrouped, assembled an army under the command of his grandson Haoshyangha (Hushang – see below), and defeated the deva worshippers. While this second battle established the Mazdayasni as the dominant religious group between the Mazda and deva worshippers, the two groups continued to live together in close proximity. (Later, at the end of the Jamshidi / Yima era, dominance would shift to the deva worshippers (see below), after which it would move back and forth between the two groups.)
Implicit in the references to ancient Aryans in the literature, is the development and establishment of national governance through the establishment of a hereditary kingship and a royal line. In this system of governance, Aryan kings had a sacred responsibility to protect the people, establish and uphold the law, encourage human development and lead the progress of society to a better life. When Aryan kings maintained this sacred trust and ethical compact (what in modern days we call a social contract), they were said to rule in grace in keeping with their khvarenah.
Aryan Metal Age
Some texts state that Hushang was the first Aryan king. In any event, Hushang developed governance according to the rule of law and as a result he was called paradhata (first law giver). The title paradhata evolved to peshdat and then pishdad, a title that became the name given to the dynasty started by Hushang. Allied to the rule of law was the concept of common justice.
During the Age of Hushang, the Aryans developed agriculture and furthered the domestication of animals and – two elements essential for the development of settled, civilized societies.
The domestication of animals that had started with the herding of cattle during the Age of Gaya Maretan, now developed to include animal husbandry and the domestication of horses, ass and sheep. The domesticated animals were used for ploughing, as beasts of burden, for transportation, and for the making of dairy products. The animal and dairy products were used to pay taxes – and taxation was born.
To support agriculture, the Aryans during the age of Hushang dug irrigation canals and ducts. They learnt to bake bread as well.
Discovery of Fire-Making
Jashne Sadeh / Festival of the Hundredth Day
The Hushang Age also saw the discovery of how to make fire. This discovery is celebrated annually by people of Iranian (Persian) descent at the Jashne Sadeh, meaning the festival of the hundredth day. Yazdi Zoroastrians celebrate Sadeh 100 days before the New Year’s day (Nowruz), while Kermani Zoroastrianscelebrate the festival 100 days after the Ayathrem gahambar. (For further details, please see our page on Fire.)
The discovery of fire also led to the extraction metal from ore. According to legend, during this era, people acquired the skills of blacksmithing, crafting axes, saws and mattocks (a tool like a pickaxe with one end of its blade flattened at right angles to its handle and used for loosening soil and cutting through roots.)
The Age of Hushang was therefore the start of the Metal Age in Aryan history. However, unlike other metal ages which started with the processing of copper, Aryan and Saka legends place the use of gold before the use of copper in Central Asia – possibly even a few thousand years earlier. In Central Asia, gold was the more readily available and accessible metal. The Shahnameh of Ferdowsi states that gold was used in ancient times to make surgical knives used to perform Caesarean operations.
The Age of Hushang was also the start of the agricultural age and the age during which the Aryans began to establish an international trade network. In general, it was the start of the age of civilization.
Age of Tahmuras
Haoshyangha was succeeded by his son Tahmuras during whose reign, the art of shearing sheep, weaving and the making of clothes and draperies were developed. The reared animals were fed barley, grass, and hay, indicating that rather than leaving reared animals to graze in pasture, the animals were fed a diet that increased their strength and productivity. As a result, the horses became strong and swift. Fowl and other birds were added to the list of reared animal. Falconry and the taming of hawks were also developed during this age. The law of the land developed to include laws that required the animals be reared with kindness. These are probably the first records of animal humane laws in history.
Art too developed under the patronage of the king.
During the age of Tahmuras, the deva worshippers rose in rebellion, a rebellion that was put down. As part of the agreement to spare their lives, the deva-worshippers taught Tahmuras thirty different alphabets from different nations to east, west and south, thus teaching him the science of delineating sounds. From this account, it would appear that the deva-worshippers were the original travellers who had knowledge of the lands of China, Asia Minor, Arabia, Sogdiana and other neighbouring states. Aryan international tradewould have been firmly established during the age of Tahmuras.
To the structure of Aryan governance, Tahmuras added a prime minister charged with the administration of justice.
Age of Jamshid
In the Avesta, Jamshid is called Yima-Srira or Yima Khshaeta, meaning Yima the radiant, son of Vivanghat. In an Old Persian tablet found at Persepolis, he is called Yama-kshedda, and eventually in Middle Persian Pahlavi, his name is transformed to Jam-sheed (to this day, the Parsees of India continue this penchant for converting the Y sound to a J sound). In the Vedas, he is called Yama, son of Vivasvant.
The Avestan references to Yima are found in Vendidad Fargard 2, Gatha 32.8, Yasna 9.4-5, Avan Yasht 5.25-6, Ram Yasht 15.15-6, Ashishvangh Yasht 17.28-31 and Jamyad Yasht 19.30-44.
While in the Avesta, Gaya Maretan is the first mortal, in the Rig Veda, Yama is the first mortal. This might indicate that for the Avestan people history started with Gaya Maretan, while for the people of the Rig Veda, their history as a people – as an identifiable or sovereign group – started with Yama. The Avesta and Vedas start to share prehistory with Yima / Yama.
Start of the Tragic Aryan Epic Cycles
In the legends, the legendary king who follows Tahmuras is Yima Khshaeta (later called Jamshid). As we have done previously, in an effort to extract historical developments from the myths and legends, we will say that the Jamshedi age followed the age of Tahmuras.
During the Jamshidi age (the age of Yima), the rule of law – a law grounded in grace and justice – developed and heralded a golden age during which time Airyana Vaeja, the Aryan homeland, became a paradise on earth. In legend, Jamshid is considered one of the wisest and greatest kings ever, but one who would nevertheless fell from grace, thus heralding the start of tragic epic cycles in Aryan history, cycles that rotated between good and evil times. (For a further discussion on this golden era, please see our section on Airyana Vaeja as paradise in our page on the possible location of Airyana Vaeja.) Regrettably, subsequent monarchs did not learn from past errors and declines, dooming themselves and the Aryan nation to repeat the tragic epic cycle.
Since the Jamshedi age in legend lasted for over one thousand two hundred years, it would be unrealistic to expect this to be an accurate time period. Rather, it could indicate a long period of history that may have spanned several dynasties. Within this age, an early king, perhaps an eponymous Yima, would have ushered in a golden era – one that was sustained by subsequent Jamshedi age kings who may have continued presiding over significant societal change for the better. However, later kings might have become arrogant and complacent.
We have examples of this scenario is later times where is have more historical information. For instance, in the last of the tragic epic cycles – the age of the Persian kings – we have historical records of an age that lasted about a thousand years from the Achaemenians to the Sassanians (about the same span of time as the Jamshidi age). During the Persian age, there was a golden era brought on by the rule of Cyrus the Great. Later, there came a time when the kings became arrogant. The dissention from within weakened the Persian Empire making it vulnerable to foreign aggression. Ultimately, what followed was the destruction of a historic civilization.
Zoroastrians need to pay heed to the lessons of history, least those who have sacrificed so much to preserve these legends have done so in vain. History has been kind to Zoroastrians when they gained grace, but cruel and unforgiving when Zoroastrian leaders lost their grace. Arrogance, internal bickering, dissension and a loss of fundamental ethical principles are some of the symptoms of a fall from grace.
Metal Age Developments
During the Jamshidi age, iron was used to manufacture helmets, chain-mail tunics, breastplates, and coats of armour both for man and horse. Weaving was developed to a high art and included silk, cotton, and animal hair to produced finely woven and brocaded fabrics.
Calendar, Nowruz and Weather
The age saw the establishment of a calendar with the spring equinox being set as New Year’s day – Nowruz. Holidays were promulgated and music began to be composed.
At the outset of the Jamshedi era, the weather in the Aryan homeland, Airyana Vaeja was fair and equitable, with the spring equinox heralding the start of spring and a renewal after the winter.
However, a thousand two hundred years after the start of the Jamshedi era, there was a sudden climate chill (Vendidad 2.22-25) and a drastic cooling (also see Aryans, page 3) – a mini Ice Age of sorts.
Knowledge of Central Asia’s climate and climate changes during the past 12,000 years can assist in an understanding of the historical periods in Central Asia. For instance, in an event called the Younger Dryas, the earth is known to have experienced a sudden cooling starting 12,800 years from the present, with the cooling lasting about 1,200 years. In addition, there is evidence of more recent and shorter cooling spells of, say, 100 years. Different regions could have experienced different degrees of change and a severe cooling event could also have been regional rather than global. If the location of Airyana Vaeja was an area like the Pamirs, a 50 to 100C drop in average temperatures would have been sufficient to make winter life very harsh (Vendidad, a book of the Zoroastrian scriptures, chapter 1.2 and 2.22). We are informed by the Avesta, that after the change in climate, the warm months (the rapithwan months) in Airyana Vaeja were shortened from the normal seven months to two months in duration (Vendidad 1.3, notes in Vendidad Sada and Bundahishn 25 – the warm months being those when the ground waters are cooler than the surface).
The Vara Settlement
The sudden cooling and the onset of severe winters required the construction of a new kind of settlement and dwellings called a vara (Avestan Vendidad, a book of the Zoroastrian scriptures, chapter 2.25 – part of Zoroastrian scriptures). Vara is both the name of a settlement and the dwellings that made up the settlement (from vara, enclosure).
The concept of the vara enabled sustainable living for a people and their live-stock in a mountainous region beset with harsh winters. Surviving severe winters without migrating to warmer regions must have been an incredible challenge and a profound development for the people of those days.
If we put the mythological aspects of the legend aside, the description of the vara in the Vendidad indicates the start of settlement / urban planning in Aryan history. The Jamshidi concept was for the vara to be a self-contained, self-sustaining communal dwelling area built according to a set of uniform principles. There were to be separate areas for humans and animals, as well as for seed and hay storage. Fruit trees and crops were to be planted within the vara area. Water for the inhabitants and crops was to be brought to the vara via a channel and stored in a reservoir. Designated festivals also included a sharing of food resources. In addition, during the Jamshidi era, clay began to be used as a building and construction material for the first time. The houses of the vara were to be constructed using clay and wooden pillars.
The vara settlement was to be of three sizes: a settlement of a thousand inhabitants with nine streets, six hundred inhabitants with six streets, and three hundred inhabitants with three streets.
Also see the page on the Pamirs.
The Avesta tells us that during in the first thousand two hundred years of the Yima / Jamshedi era, the territory of Airyana Vaeja expanded up to four and a half times “southwards, on the way of the sun” (prior to the climate change), presumably into Afghanistan and possibly even the upper Indus valley. The people who remained in the original mountainous Aryan homeland appear to have dealt with the severe winters by staying in the varas for the entire winter, snowed in and cut off from the rest of the world, in the same manner as the Yagnobi in Tajikistan (close to the Pamir region) live through the winter to this day (also see Weather Change in Airyana Vaeja During Jamshid’s Reign in our pages on the Aryans).
Professional Guilds & Initiation
King Jamshid developed the concept of specialized professions. He instituted the four main professional guilds of priests and learned (athravan), nobles and warriors (rathestaran), farmers (vasteryosan), and artisans (hutokhshan), with members of each profession working in freedom and dignity. Farmers had their own land free from dispute. King Jamshid also instituted the tradition of the wearing the sacred thread or belt as an mark that the wearer had been initiated into the guilds (see (Sad-dar – ‘Hundred Doors’ chapter 10, and chapter 39.18-19, Dadestan-i Denig – ‘Religious Decisions’).
The Hindu Vedas list four similar professions called varnas (from var, to enclose, cf. Av. vara meaning enclosure): the priests and learned (brahman), nobles and warriors (khshtriya), merchants and farmers (vaishyas), labourers and artisans (sudra). Each varna has its own dharma or system and rules (also called laws) which included an initiation ceremony called the upanayana (meaning bringing within).
The Vedic name for the systems of professions, varnas, and the Avestan name for the Jamshedi settlements, varas – both from the root vara meaning enclosure is significant and bears further examination.
The Hindu initiation ceremony like the Zoroastrian initiation ceremony is also called a thread ceremony. Hinduism calls the initiate a dvijas meaning twice born signifying that the initiate is “born again” into spiritual life. Zoroastrianism uses the term navjote meaning new life. The Hindu initiation is conducted during a person’s teen or early adult years. The Zoroastrian age for initiation was the age or reason, deemed by tradition to be fifteen years of age.
Hinduism developed the professional guilds into a caste system, a development that violated principles that Zarathushtra would promote. The initiation ceremony in Hinduism is now limited to men of the first three castes, while the initiation ceremony in Zoroastrianism is available to all women and men. In Zoroastrianism, the initiation ceremony is an initiation into the faith and a coming-of-age ceremony for all Zoroastrians – rather than an initiation into a guild or caste.
Start of Human History in the Hindu Vedas
In the Vedas, human history starts with Yama and Hindu reverence for Yama, King Jamshid, grew while he lost favour with the Mazdayasni Aryan predecessors of the Zoroastrians. The Avesta tells us that the once wise, noble and honoured King Yima grew too proud, thought himself a god, and lost his place and grace – his khvarenah. In his hymns (Gatha 32.8), Zarathushtra laments that King Jamshid lost his way and became a sinner.
It is within the realm of possibilities that the Jamshidi king at that time abandoned the Mazdayasni faith in favour of becoming a deva worshipper, thereby becoming the first deva-worshipping Aryan king. (For an explanation of the different Aryans religions and the schism between them, please see our page on Aryan religions.)
End of the First Tragic Aryan Epic Cycle
Following Jamshid’s loss of grace, the vassal kings and lords of Airyana Vaeja withdrew from the court of Jamshid and Airyana Vaeja. A hundred years later, weakened by internal dissention, Airyana Vaeja was invaded by an evil foreign king, Zahak (also spelt Zahhak and called Azi Dahaka in the Avesta). That event marked the end of the first tragic epic cycle in Aryan history and also the end of the first part of Pishdadian royal rule. The foreign domination supported by the deva worshippers lasted for a thousand years.
The Jamshidi loss of grace and arrogance had resulted in a nation that became weak from within and one that fell prey to conquest and domination by a foreign king for a thousand years until their liberation by Feridoon.
Regrettably, the Aryans would not learn from this painful lesson in history. In eras yet to come, the Aryan nation would rise and fall with epochs of golden ages followed by despair brought about by an abdication of the ruler’s sacred trust and ethical compact to rule for the benefit of the people.
Our examination of the Aryan’s prehistory continues on the page Legendary History.
Aryan Homeland In Scriptures: Aryan Homeland & Neighbouring Lands in the Avesta
The homeland of the Aryans was called Airyana Vaeja in the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta and Arya Vartain the Hindu scriptures. The collection of first Aryan nations was called Airyanam Dakhyunam. Aryan lands are called Airyo Shayanem.
The books of the Avesta as well as the Middle Persian Pahlavi texts such as the Lesser Bundahishn, tell us that Airyana Vaeja, the Aryan homeland, was where Zarathushtra’s father lived (20.32) and where Zarathushtra first expounded his beliefs (32.3).
In addition to mentioning Airyana Vaeja, the Zoroastrian scriptures, the books of the Avesta, also mention neighbouring nations or lands.
These references, along with references to the terrain and weather in Airyana Vaeja, give us clues about the location of the original Aryan homeland, as well as information about the Aryan people, their neighbours, and their relationships.
Earliest Mention of the Lands – Farvardin Yasht
Lands of Zarathushtra’s Ministry
A chapter of the Avesta that has the most intimate knowledge of Zarathushtra and his first followers, is the Avesta’s Farvardin Yasht – chapter 10 of the book of Yashts.
The Yasht (13.143 & 144) lists the names of individuals who were the first “hearers and teachers” of Zarathushtra’s teachings. The Yasht memorializes and reveres the fravashis (spiritual souls) of these first “hearers and teachers” of Zarathushtra’s teachings. In addition to specific names, it also memorializes all the righteous people in the five nations as well as those “all countries”. The five nations mentioned are Airyana Vaeja (called Airyanam Dakhyunam in the Yasht) as well as four neighbouring lands. These four lands neighbouring Airyana Vaeja are Tuirya, Sairima, Saini and Dahi. Since -nam is a usual ending for many Avestan nouns, the nations are also named as Airyanam, Tuiryanam, Dahinam, Sairimanam and Saininam.
Since the surviving texts of Zarathushtra’s teachings, the hymns of the Gathas, are in one language, we can say it is reasonable to assume that the nations in which Zarathushtra spread his message were neighbours and spoke the same language and dialect as well. For his message (which reference pre-Zoroastrian beliefs) to have relevance, these peoples also likely shared the same, or variations of the same, pre-Zoroastrian religion. We may conclude this assumption by saying the five founding Zoroastrian nations likely shared the same culture and ethnicity. In terms of size, we are left with the impression that they can be compared to districts with a province today. The Gathas of Zarathushtra are placed in the Avestan book of Yasna. While their language is the same, the dialect of the other verses is different from that of the Gathas. They were either written by followers at a different point in time or in a neighbouring region that spoke a different dialect.
Other than Airyana Vaeja, none of the Farvardin Yasht’s nations are mentioned in the Vendidad’s list of Zoroastrian nations. The Vendidad is a book of the Zoroastrian scriptures. Even though the Vendidad list preceded the formation of Media and Persian making it over two thousand eight hundred years old, the nations are for the most part recognizable today and we may conclude that the Vendidad list is far more modern than the list of five nations of the Farvardin Yasht cited in the paragraph above. Those nations either changed their names or became parts of other nations.
Dahi, for instance find mention only once in King Xerxes’ list of countries that were part of the Persian empire. But in other lists and by the accounts of Greek writers such as Strabo, it was a part of the Saka nations, two of which find regular mention as part of the Persian Empire.
Tuirya is identified with Turan which later became known as Sugd. Dahi as a name continued to exist, Dahi being one of the Saka nations. We do not as yet known the present identity of the other lands.
Bakhdhi / Balkh (Bactria), which is noted in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (see Shahnameh page 30) and other later tradition as a land where Zarathushtra spread his message, is not mentioned in the Farvardin Yasht. However, Kava Vishtasp, Kava being a title of the Kayanian kings of Bakhdhi / Balkh, is mentioned in the Farvardin Yasht.
King Vishtasp of Bakhdi / Balkh
Among the Farvardin Yasht’s list of Zarathushtra’s first “hearers and teachers” is Kavoish Vishtaspahe (Kava Vishtasp) (13.99). In the Yasht, Kava Vishtasp has a special place having a verse devoted to him. The common extrapolation is that Kava Vishtasp is the Kai Gushtasp (Gushtasp is a later form of Vishtasp) mentioned in later texts which also state that King Vishtasp’s / Gushtasp’s capital was Bakhdhi or Bakhdi, i.e. present day Balkh in Northern Afghanistan.
Bakhdi is listed as a nation in the Vendidad but not in the Farvardin Yasht. These later texts also tell us that Zarathushtra died in Bakhdi/Balkh, killed by a Turanian.
Balkh is directly south of Samarkand over an eastern spur of the Pamir mountains. The predecessors of present day Samarkand and Balkh are among the first nations listed in another (and later) book of the Avesta – the Vendidad.
Nations listed in the Avesta
In addition to the Farvardin Yasht, two other sections of the Avesta provide us with names of nations associated with the Aryans, the Vendidad and the Meher Yasht.
The Avestan book of Vendidad starts with a list of sixteen nations (Chapter 1, 1-16), the first being Airyanem Vaejo or Airyana Vaeja.
Other than the Aryan homeland Airyanem Vaeja (Airyanam Dakhyunam in the Farvardin Yasht), the Vendidad does not mention the four other lands mentioned in the Farvardin Yasht (see above). Nor does the Farvardin Yasht mention any of the fifteen other lands mentioned in the Vendidad. Three of the five Farvardin Yasht nations are not known to us. The nations of the Vendidad can be more readily identified. The only land common to both lists is the Aryan homeland. This, the other information contained, and the language used in the texts indicate to us that the Farvardin Yasht and the Vendidad were written at very different times, the Farvardin Yasht being the older. The Vendidad itself was probably composed well before 800 BCE since it does not list Persia or Media (also see below), making the Farvardin Yasht an ancient composition.
The Meher Yasht also provides names of nations in 10.13-14. Aryan lands are called Airyo Shayanem. Three of the nations mentioned in the Meher Yasht, Mourum, Haroyum and Sughdhem i.e. Margush, Aria and Suguda, are also part of the Vendidad list. Sughdhem is associated with the word Gava in the Meher Yasht.
Depending on whether some of the words in the Meher Yasht are names of countries, one or three additional lands are mentioned in the Meher Yasht which are not part of the Vendidad list: Khairizem (associated with Kharazem i.e. Khvarizem). Khairizem has been touted by a few authors as being the original home of Zoroastrianism. This is unlikely and Kharazem likely gained this reputation because at one time before the rise of Persia, Kharazem / Khvarizem / Khairizem was the dominant nation amongst the Aryan nations – and its lands could have expanded to include ancient Airyana Vaeja. The other two possible nations in the Meher Yasht are Aishkatem and Pourutem (some authors believe these are names of nations while others believe they are words that are part of the text).
The list of nations in the Vendidad is the most complete and one that provides us with information we can use in narrowing down the location of Airyana Vaeja.
Persia not Part of the Original Listing of Vendidad Lands
The Vendidad, and indeed the entire Avesta, does not mention Persia or Media. This was because Persia and Media became nations after the Avestan canon was closed. However, The Achaemenian Persian Kings (c. 700 – 330 BCE) repeatedly proclaimed their Aryan heritage.
Sixteen Nations of the Vendidad
The list of sixteen nations in the Vendidad is as follows:
|“Good Lands and Countries” of the Vendidad|
|Vendidad Name||Alternative Spelling||Old Persian/ Pahlavi||Greek / Western||Present Name||Features: – Good &
|1. Airyanem Vaejo||Airyana Vaeja||Airan Vej (Phl.)||Iran||– Good & lawful
– River snakes,
climate change to severe winters.
|Suguda (OP)||Sogdiana||Sugd, Northwest Tajikistan,
Samarkand (SE Uzbekistan)
|– Good land
– fly Skaitya which kills cattle
|3. Mourum||Mouru||Margu (OP)||Margiana||Marv / Merv,
|– Brave, holy
– Plunder, bloodshed
|4. Bakhdhim||Bakhdhi||Bakhtrish (OP)||Bactria||Balkh,
|– Uplifted banner
– Stinging ants
|5. Nisaim||Nisaya||Parthava (OP)||Parthia||N. Khorasan (NE Iran) & Nisa
Bordering Balkh and Marv
|– Good land
– Disbelief (could have refused
to accept Zoroastrianism)
|6. Haroyum||Haroyu||Haraiva (OP)||Aria||Hari Rud (Herat),
|– Plentiful water
– Grief, poverty
|7. Vaekeretem||Khnenta Vaekerata
|– Good land
– Followers of Keresaspa,
fairies and witchcraft
|8. Urvam||Urva||Uvarazmiya/Uvarazmish||Khvarizem/Chorasmia||Khorezm, Uzbekistan||– Rich pastures
– Pride, tyranny
|9. Khnentem Vehrkano||Vehrkana||Varkana (OP)||Hyrcania||Gorgan, Golestan,
|– Good land
– Sodomy with children
|10. Harahvaitim||Harahvaiti||Harauvatish (OP)||Arachosia||Kandahar & Oruzan
South Central Afghanistan
– Bury the dead
|11. Haetumantem||Haetumant||Zraka (OP)||Drangiana||Helmand – SE Afghanistan &
Sistan – E. Iran
|– Brilliant, glorious
– Wizardry & Sorcery
|12. Rakham||Ragha||Raga (OP)||Ragai||Rai, Tehran & S. Alburz,
|– Three peoples
– Utter disbelief
|13. Chakhrem*||Kakhra||Uncertain: Either Ghazni, SE Afghanistan or just west of Rai, N. Iran||– Brave, righteous
– Burn corpses
|14. Varenem||Varena||Patashkh-vargar or Dailam (Phl.)||Western Hyrcania||W. Mazandaran, Gilan & Northern Alburz (land of Mt. Damavand) North Iran||– Home of Thraetaona (Feridoon)
who slew Azi Dahaka (Zahak)
– Barbarian (foreign) rule
|15. Hapta Hendu**||Hapta Hindu||Hindava (OP)||Indus||Northern valley of the seven Indus rivers** (Upper Indus Basin)
Gandhara (Waihind)***, Punjab and Kashmir in N. Pakistan & NW India
|– Wide expanses
– Violence, rage and hot weather
|16. Ranghaya||Rangha||later part of Arvastani Rum (Phl.) i.e. Eastern Roman empire||Lake Urmia, Upper Tigris, Kurdistan, Eastern & Central Turkey||– Good land
– No chiefs i.e. no protector,
open to raids, lawless,
*Chakhrem is used in Yasht 13.89 and means wheel (or revolving; cf. Persian charkh meaning wheel) and is used there as chakhrem urvaesayata in the context of Zarathushtra being the first member of every professional guild opposed to the daevas. Avestan Chakhrem urvaesayata is similar to the Sanskrit chakhram vartay and chakhravartin meaning ‘chariot over the land’ or ‘ruler’. The western Mitanni were known for their expertise in chariot-building and this may or may not have relevance.
** The seven Indus Rivers, Hapta Hindu (nation #15 above), are: 1. the Indus (Veda-Sindhu), the 2. Kabul and 3. Kurram rivers joining on the west and north banks of the Indus, and the 4. Jhelum (Veda-Vitasta), 5. Chenab (Veda-Asikni), 6. Ravi (Veda-Airovati), and 7. Sutlej/Beas (Veda-Vipasa) rivers joining the Indus’ east and south banks. (There is some discussion that the Saraswati River mentioned in Hindu Vedic texts was also an Indus tributary – though this is not clear.) The Hindu texts are mainly concerned with the eastern & southern tributaries while the Zoroastrian texts are concerned with the upper reaches of the Indus and all its tributaries whose valleys would have provided access to the plains – areas north and west of the Punjab (Panj-ab meaning five waters in Persian) – i.e. present-day North-West Frontier Province in Northern Pakistan, Northern Punjab and Kashmir in India and Pakistan.
*** Gandhara/Waihind. The land of the upper Indus basin was known as Gandhara or Waihind. Today, the region has Peshawar, Mardan, Mingora and Chitral as its main cities. It would have extended into all the habitable valleys of the south-eastern Hindu Kush. The Gandhara/Waihind region includes the Indus, Swat, Chitral and Kabul River valleys. It may have extended south to Takshashila (Taxila) (near present-day Islamabad) and present-day Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in the west, thus bordering Vaekerata (Kabul) to the east.
|Nations of the Vendidad, Avesta|
There is a pattern in the listing:
1. The first three nations listed after Airyana Vaeja are in the southern Uzbekistan, southern Turkmenistan, northern Afghanistan area. The balance of the list of nations fan out, moving west and south in steps. The last two nations are the most southeast and west of the initial group.
2. The nations border one another. The nation listed next to Airyana Vaeja is Sukhdho/Sughdha – modern day Sugd in northern Tajikistan and southern Uzbekistan.
3. The nations are all along the Aryan Trading routes – what are now called the Silk Roads (also see Tajikistan pages) – an ancient set of trading roads between the Orient, the Occident and the Indian sub-continent.
Relationship Between Airyana Vaeja and the Other Nations of the Avesta
The sixteen nations listed in the Vendidad were selected by the author or authors of the Vendidad from among the nations of the known world. The list is therefore not a list of the world’s nations, but a list of nations connected with Airyana Vaeja. The Vendidad nations listed after Airyana Vaeja, are those to which Aryans migrated from Airyana Vaeja, intermingling as they did, with the peoples of those lands. While Zoroastrian-Aryans inhabited these lands, they were not necessarily the majority people in these lands.
All of the Vendidad nations would at some point come together as part of the larger Aryan, Iranian, or Persian empires.
Migration of the Aryans and Expansion of Aryan Lands
Before the era of legendary King Jamshid, see (Aryan Prehistory and Location of Aryan Homeland), the original Aryan homeland in the Avesta, Airyana Vaeja, could not have been very large. However, starting in the Jamshidi era and continuing up to the establishment of the Achaemenian Persian empire under Darius the Great, the Aryan lands did grow considerably in size.
The Zoroastrian Avesta, the Hindu Vedas and other texts tell us that the Aryans migrated out of Airyana Vaeja and that the lands associated with the Aryans increased in size for the following reasons:
1. An increase in population during the Jamshidi era.
2. Climate change to severe winters and short summers.
3. Trading with neighbouring lands and settlement of significant populations in these lands.
4. Establishment of kingdoms through settlement or conquest. A federation of these kingdoms during the Feridoon Era / Pishdadian dynasty.
5. Inter-Aryan wars. The schism between the deva and Mazda worshippers cf. reign of King Vishtasp and life of Zarathushtra
6. Establishment of the Persian empire that included the original federation of kingdoms as well as additional lands.
These points are discussed further below.
As the Aryans migrated to the lands of their neighbours, they did not displace the original inhabitants. When the Persian Aryans eventually settled the southern Iran plateau, the area was populated by the Elamites with whom the Persians integrated. An examination of the present linguistic composition of Iran reveals that other, non Indo-Iranian linguistic groups are interspersed among Persian linguistic groups.
1. Jamshidi Era Expansion. Growth of Airyana Vaeja
The Vendidad tells us that in the first part of his reign, legendary King Jamshid had doubled the extent of his lands to accommodate a population increase. (The ancient Avestan name for King Jamshid was Yima-Srira or Yima-Khshaeta, meaning Yima the radiant. He was similarly called Yama in the Hindu scriptures, the Vedas.) Depending on how one interprets the texts, the expansion could have been much larger – up to four and a half times in extent. The expansion of lands was “southwards, on the way of the sun,” which could mean southward from the east to the west of Airyana Vaeja.
The Hindu Vedas state that the land procured by Yama (King Jamshid) became the homeland of the Hindus.
Gateway to the Aryan Hindu Lands
The Hindu Rig and Atharva Vedas state:
1. Worship with oblation Yama the King, son of Vivasvat,
the assembler of people,
who departed from the deep to the heights,
and explored the road for many.
2. Yama was the first who found for us the route.
This home is not to be taken from us.
Those who are now born,
(go) by their own routes
to the place whereunto our ancient forefathers emigrated.
(Atharva Veda xviii.1.49 & Rig Veda x.14.1)
…they cross by fords the mighty streams
which the virtuous offerers of sacrifice pass
(Atharva Veda xviii.4.7)
The Hindu reverence for Yama, King Jamshid, grew at the same time when he lost favour with the Mazdayasni predecessors of the Zoroastrians, who record that King Yima lost his grace, grew too proud and thought himself a god. The Vedic verses appear to state that the lands Yima acquired became part of the permanent home of the Hindus – a land that would grow to include the entire Indian subcontinent, and would become separate from the original Aryan homeland. The comment above regarding a home that “cannot be taken from us,” indicates a previous vulnerability of the predecessors of the Hindus in the original Aryan Homeland at the time the Vedas were written – a vulnerability either from foreign or internal foes.
It is unlikely that the expansion during the Jamshidi era included the river plains such as the lands that make up the Punjab today. Expansion into the Indus plains would take place later in history. Hapta-Hindu, the seven Indus lands that would include the plains, is the fifteenth, and last but one, nation in the Vendidad’s list of nations. The part of upper Indus occupied during the Jamshidi era would include what are today’s Eastern Afghanistan, the north of Pakistan and India – the areas on both sides i.e. just north and south of the Hindu Kush and Karakoram mountains. The limited size of the expansion is further indication that the original Aryan homeland was not very large.
During the Jamshidi era, the lands just north and south of the Hindu Kush and Karakoram were united. They would later separate politically and the two mountain ranges, especially the Hindu Kush formed the primary border between the two kingdoms.
There is yet another factor that links the upper Indus, the Hapta-Hindu with the area immediately to the north and north-west i.e. the Badakshan-Pamir region: the Rig Veda is commonly thought to have been written in the Upper Indus region, and the language of the Rig Veda and the Old Avesta are so close that they are commonly thought to be dialects such as that spoken in two neighbouring provinces and that further, they emerged from a common language philologists call Proto Indo-Iranian, another name for the language of united ancient Aryans. [Also see our page on Languages.]
2. Jamshidi Era Climate Change
The Vendidad and other texts also inform us that at the outset of the Jamshedi era, the weather in the Aryan homeland, Airyana Vaeja was fair and equitable, with the spring equinox heralding the start of spring and a renewal after the winter. However, a thousand two hundred years after the start of the Jamshedi era, there was a sudden climate chill (Vendidad 2.22-25) and a drastic cooling (also see Location of the Aryan homeland) and our page Aryan Prehistory – a mini Ice Age of sorts.
This sudden cooling could have encouraged further Aryan migration to the warmer portions of the expanded Jamshidi lands
3. Aryan Trade
|Trading Roads (later called Silk Roads) c. 2000 BCE|
The Aryans started trading between themselves in the expanded Jamshedi lands as well as with their neighbours very early in their history – during the Stone Ages. Aryan trade is closely linked to Aryan migration and the sixteen Vendidad nations. A more detailed discussion can be found on our page on Aryan Trade.
Aryan Trade Routes – the Silk Roads
The Aryan trade routes would come to be known as the Silk Roads. Aryan trade extended from China in the east, to Asia Minor and Mesopotamia in the west, to the Iranian plateau and the Indus valley in the south.
Sogdian Aryan trading settlements have been found in China. Indeed, the earliest known manuscript of the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta, written in Sogdian, has been found in China. (Also see our page on Tajikistan.)
The pattern of the Vendidad’s list of nations we noted above, moves from the Central Asian core, progressively west and south along the Aryan Trading (Silk) Roads into present-day Turkey and Pakistan.
[After the Zoroastrians migrated to India following the Arab invasion of Iran, they revived their tradition of trading between the east and west, becoming wealthy in the process.]
Trading allowed the Aryans to become familiar with, and later settle in, the lands along the Silk Road. As the Aryans established permanent trading posts in neighbouring lands, they also established settlements that became communities.
4. Feridoon Era Federation of Kingdoms. First Aryan Empire. Transformation to Airan
According to the Poet Ferdowsi’s epic, the Shahnameh, during the reign of legendary King Feridoon, the lands he ruled came to include what we know as the sixteen lands mentioned in the Vendidad. Feridoon decided to divide his sprawling empire the amongst his three sons. To his eldest son Tur, he gave the eastern lands with its capital in Turan – a nation that got its name from Tur. To his son Iraj, Feridoon gave Airan (the country that Airyana Vaeja had evolved into) and Hind (Hapta Hindu, the upper Indus lands). To his son Salm, Feridoon gave the western kingdoms. Tur, however, felt that as the eldest son he had been slighted, for the lands of Airan and Hind were the gems of the empire and the seat of its power. No sooner had Feridoon divided his kingdom between his sons, that the jealous and ambitious Tur persuaded Salm to join him in a plot to murder Iraj.
Within this legend is history. If we replace the Airan empire with the Airan people, this myth tells us that the Aryans had spread to present day Turkey in the west, the upper Indus valley in the south, to the borders of China in the east and the deserts of the north. Further, the wars between the different Aryan lands were internecine conflicts that punctuate Aryan history. By the time of Feridoon, the centre of the Aryan nation had move to Bakhdhi (Balkh or Bactria). (Also see our page on Turan.)
(Also see Legendary Kings. Pishdadian Dynasty Part II)
5. Inter Aryan Wars
The internecine wars mentioned above included wars between the Aryan religious groups, the Mazda-Asura worshippers and the deva worshippers. The religious groups, their beliefs and the wars are discussed in our page on Aryan Religions.
6. Persian empire
The Achaemenian king, Cyrus II, the Great (c. 600 to 576 – August 530 BCE), established the Persian empire and the expansion continued under the reign of Darius I, the Great (522- 486 BCE). The sixteen nations of the Vendidad made up the core of the nations that became part of the Persian empire. Indeed, it may be said that the Persians by creating the third Aryan empire, sought to unify all the Aryan lands (see Aryana below) by continuing the tradition of legendary King Feridoon who established the first Aryan empire, and the Medes who established the second Aryan empire.
The nations listed by Darius the Great, King of Persia on an inscription at Naqsh-e-Rustam as part of his Persian empire are: Pârsa (Persia), Mâda (Media), Ûvja (Elam), Parthava (Parthia), Haraiva (Aria), Bâxtrish (Bactria), Suguda (Sogdiana), Uvârazmish (Chorasmia), Zraka (Drangiana), Harauvatish (Arachosia), Thatagush (Sattagydia), Gadâra (Gandara), Hidush (Sind), Sakâ haumavargâ (Amyrgian Scythians), Sakâ tigraxaudâ (Scythians with pointed caps), Bâbirush (Babylonia), Athurâ (Assyria), Arabâya (Arabia), Mudrâya (Egypt), Armina (Armenia), Katpatuka (Cappadocia), Sparda (Sardis), Yauna (Ionia / Greece), Sakâ tyaiy paradraya (Scythians who are across the sea), Skudra (Skudra), Yaunâ takabarâ (petasos-wearing Ionians), Putâyâ (Libyans), Kûshiyâ (Ethiopians), Maciyâ (people of Maka), Karkâ (Carians). See map of the Persian Achaemenian Empire.
|Darius’ listing of Persian Empire nations
Cuneiform Inscription on rock at Behistun, Iran
Column 1 lines 9-17
Greater Aryana – Classical References
Classical Hellenic authors such as Strabo mention the lands of Ariana or Aryana and make a distinction between the collection of kingdoms that formed Aryana and the country or kingdom of Aria.
Strabo (2.1.31) implies that Ariana was a single national group whose members formed the different Aryan kingdoms: “Ariana is not so accurately described (as India being in the shape of a quadrilateral or rhomboid by Eratosthenes), on account of its western side being interwoven with the adjacent lands (of Persia and Media). Still it is pretty well distinguished by its three other sides, which are formed by three nearly straight lines (see following paragraph), and also by its name (Aryana, meaning land of the Aryans), which shows it to be only one nation.”
In the estimation of the Hellenic authors, Aryana included the larger group of Aryan kingdoms including Aria, and was bordered by the Indus river in the east (Pomponius Mela 1.12 states that “nearest to India is Ariana, then Aria”. Strabo 15.2.1 also states “Next to India is Ariana”), the sea in the south, a line from Carmania (Kerman) to the Caspian Gates in the west, and the Taurus Mountains (the chains for mountains that run west-east from Anatolia and which include the Himalayas) in the north.
The land of Aryana included Media, Persia, the deserts of Gedrosia and Carmania, that is, the provinces of Carmania, Gedrosia, Drangiana, Arachosia (Strabo 11.10.1 ), Aria, the Paropamisadae, Bactria (called the ornament of Ariana), Apollodorus of Artemita (Strabo 11.11.1) and Sogdiana where Zarathushtra is said to have preached Ahura Mazda’s laws “among the Arianoi” (cf. Diodorus 1.94.2). These observations reconfirm the sixteen nations of the Vendidad as being part of the Greater Aryan nation and add to that list of nations the later more modern nations of Persia, Media, Carmania (Kerman) and Chorasmia. This Greater Ariana formed the core of the Persian Empire. Aelianus in De natura animalium 16.16, also mentions that there were “Indian Arianians” and there is some suggestion that control of Ariana fluctuated between Indian and Arian Arianians.
|Map of Ariana based on Eratosthenes’ data in Strabo’s Geography|
Strabo’s Description of Greater Aryana
Strabo describes the extent of Greater Aryana, a land that stretched about 2,600 km in length from present-day Ray (near Tehran, Iran) in the west to Khotan (presently in Western China), and from the Persian Gulf to the mouth of the Indus River in the south, in his Geography as follows:
(Strabo 15.2.1. Translation by H. C. Hamilton & W. Falconer): Next to India (the Avestan Hapta-Hindu, the upper Indus and its tributaries) is Ariana, the first portion of the country subject to the Persians, lying beyond the Indus, and the first of the higher satrapies without the Taurus (Classical Hellenic writers appear to have believed that a single mountain chain, the Taurus, ran east-west through Asia). On the north it (Ariana) is bounded by the same mountains as India (extensions of the Himalayas and mountains radiating from the Pamir knot, i.e. the Taurus), on the south by the same sea, and by the same river Indus, which separates it from India. It stretches thence towards the west as far as the line drawn from the Caspian Gates (Caspiæ Pylæ ) to Carmania, whence its figure is quadrilateral. The southern side begins from the mouths of the Indus, and from Patalene, and terminates at Carmania and the mouth of the Persian Gulf, by a promontory projecting a considerable distance to the south. It then makes a bend towards the gulf in the direction of Persia.
(Strabo 15.2.1. Translation by Horace Leonard Jones): After India one comes to Ariana, the first portion of the country subject to the Persians after the Indus River and of the upper satrapies situated outside the Taurus. Ariana is bounded on the south and on the north by the same sea and the same mountains as India, as also by the same river, the Indus, which flows between itself and India; and from this river it extends towards the west as far as the line drawn from the Caspian Gates to Carmania, so that its shape is quadrilateral. Now the southern side begins at the outlets of the Indus and at Patalenê, and ends at Carmania and the mouth of the Persian Gulf, where it has a promontory that projects considerably towards the south; and then it takes a bend into the gulf in the direction of Persis.
|Present-day map of the Indus River basin|
[Our note: the River Indus in the upper section rises to the north-northeast, then turns to the east and eventually rises to the southeast with its headwaters in present day Tibet.
[Note continued: Primary Boundary Between Aryana and Hapta Hindu. It is either the river itself or the mountains, the Hindu Kush and Karakoram on the Indus’ left bank, that formed the primary boundary between ancient northern India and Aryana. The name Hindi-Kush which is the Persian word for Hindu-Killer, is significant as it implies a natural barrier to the invading Hindu during any wars between the two groups. Today these mountains form the border between present day Pakistan & India on the right bank and Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Tibet on the left bank.
[Note continued: Just north of the Karakoram mountains (also called Kara Kunlun with the Baltoro Muztagh and Gujerab as sub-ranges) that like the Hindu Kush, stems from the Pamirs mountains (today mainly in Tajikistan). The region south of the Karakoram, that is between the heights of the range and the Indus River is called Gilgit-Baltistan, a part of Kashmir. A narrow region north of the Karakoram and presently a part of China, is called Tash-Korgan/Tashkurgan, an autonomous Tajik populated region. The Pamiri region includes the Kunlun mountain range that forms the eastern Tajikistan border (with China), and cities east of the range and presently in China: Tashkurgan, Khotan/Hotan, and Kashgar/Kashi. The Tajik and Pamiri inhabited areas line the region north of the Karakoram and Hindu Kush and these areas were all part of Greater Aryana.
[Note continued: The Takla Makan (Taklamakan) desert, nearly 1,000 km in width, would have formed the eastern border of Aryana. The Aryan Trade Roads (Silk Roads) shirted the desert to its north and south. The residents of Kashgar were known to have practiced Zoroastrianism and the ruins of a Zoroastrian temple can be found beside the ruins of an ancient fortress. Indeed, it is possible that residents of areas in western China that practice Islam today could have practiced Zoroastrianism in the past and that medieval Islamic control replaced areas of traditional Persian-Zoroastrian control. The original Indo-Iranian inhabitants of this area have to a large extent been displaced by Turkic peoples. The Shahnameh of Ferdowsi placed Chin (China) to the east of Airan and Turan (Sugd) beyond the desert.
|Balochistan / Baluchistan Region 1900s. Click to see a larger map|
[Note continued: Strabo’s western boundary for Aryana runs north-south from the Caspian Gates (just east of present-day Tehran-Rey) to Carmania (Kerman-Hormuz). Strabo therefore considers the territory of Aryana to included all of present-day Eastern Iran, Afghanistan, Western Pakistan and Tajikistan. This is a Greater Aryana as neither the lesser Aria (present-day Herat Province, Afghanistan) nor a single satrapy of this enormous size continued to exist during Strabo’s or Achaemenian times. The territory described by Strabo includes most of the core Aryan Vendidad nations.]
(Strabo 15.2.1. Translation by H. C. Hamilton & W. Falconer): The Arbies, who have the same name as the river Arbis (today’s Porali River, Balochistan, Pakistan), are the first inhabitants we meet with in this country (about 100 km. northwest of Karachi and 200 km west of the Indus River). They are separated by the Arbis from the next tribe, the Oritæ, and according to Nearchus, occupy a tract of sea-coast of about 1000 (200 km) stadia in length; this country also is a part of India. Next are the Oritæ, a people governed by their own laws. The voyage along the coast belonging to this people extends 1800 stadia (360 km), that along the country of the Ichthyophagi (fish-eaters – a generic name but here a Greek rendering of the ancient Persian mahi-khoran, which evolved into the modern word Makran cf. Edward Balfour, Cyclopaedia of India), who follow next, extends 7400 stadia (1500 km); that along the country of the Carmani as far as Persia, 3700 stadia. The whole number of stadia is 13,900.
(Strabo 15.2.1. Translation by Horace Leonard Jones): Ariana is inhabited first by the Arbies, whose name is like that of the River Arbis, which forms the boundary between them and the next tribe, the Oreitae; and the Arbies have a seaboard about one thousand stadia in length, as Nearchus says; but this too is a portion of India. Then one comes to the Oreitae, an autonomous tribe. The coasting voyage along the country of this tribe is one thousand eight hundred stadia in length, and the next, along that of the Ichthyophagi, seven thousand four hundred, and that along the country of the Carmanians as far as Persis, three thousand seven hundred, so that the total voyage is twelve thousand nine hundred stadia.
(Strabo 15.2.3. Translation by H. C. Hamilton & W. Falconer): Above the Ichthyophagi is situated Gedrosia (Makran), a country less exposed to the heat of the sun than India, but more so than the rest of Asia.
(Strabo 15.2.3. Translation by Horace Leonard Jones): Above the country of the Ichthyophagi is situated Gedrosia, a country less torrid than India, but more torrid than the rest of Asia.
(Strabo 15.2.8. Translation by H. C. Hamilton & W. Falconer): The position of the southern side of Ariana is thus situated, with reference to the sea-coast, the country of the Gedrosii (today’s Baluchistan) and the Oritæ lying near and below it (eastern Makran coast).
(Strabo 15.2.8. Translation by Horace Leonard Jones): Such, then, on the southern side of Ariana, is about the geographical position of the seaboard and of the lands of the Gedrosii and Oreitae, which lands are situated next above the seaboard.
[Our note: While saying that the Arbis and Oreitae were the first people encountered in Ariana while leaving India, Strabo also seems to say that they are part of India and then again the Oreitae were autonomous. What we may derive is that at one point in time, Arbis and Oreitae were part of ancient Aryana. The distances: 200 km from the Indus (the Arbie, 360 km from the Oreitae coast. A further 1500 km takes us to the head of the Persian Gulf. At this point we cannot reconcile the figure of 12,900 or 13,900 stadia (2,600 km), unless the conversion to km is incorrect or the sailing between the several points undertakes various curved circuitous routes. We can think of the Arbis, Oreitae and Ichthyophagi as coastal peoples living in coastal districts pr principalities that were part of the Makran coastal region, in the provincial kingdom of Gedrosia/Balochistan, in the ancient federated kingdom or empire of Aryana.]
(Strabo 15.2.8. Translation by H. C. Hamilton & W. Falconer): Eratosthenes (276 – c. 195 BCE) speaks in the following manner and we cannot give a better description: “Ariana,” he says, “is bounded on the east by the Indus, on the south by the Great Sea (i.e. Arabian Sea, then considered part of the Indian Ocean), on the north by the Paropamisus and the succeeding chain of mountains (today’s Elburz in north-eastern Iran) as far as the Caspian Gates (approaching today’s Tehran i.e. north-central Iran and then a part of Media), on the west by the same limits by which the territory of the Parthians is separated from Media, and Carmania (today’s Kerman) from Parætacene (modern Isfahan?) and Persia.
(Strabo 15.2.8. Translation by Horace Leonard Jones): It is a large country, and even large country, and even Gedrosia reaches up into the interior as far as the Drangae, the Arachoti, and the Paropamisadae, concerning whom Eratosthenes has spoken as follows (for I am unable to give any better description). He says that Ariana is bounded on the east by the Indus River, on the south by the great sea, on the north by the Paropamisus mountain and the mountains that follow it as far as the Caspian Gates, and that its parts on the west are marked by the same boundaries by which Parthia is separated from Media and Carmania from Paraetacenê and Persis.
(Strabo 15.2.8 continued. Translation by H.C. Hamilton & W. Falconer): The breadth of the country is the length of the Indus, reckoned from the Paropamisus as far as the mouths of that river, and amounts to 12,000, or according to others to 13,000, stadia (2,400-2,600 km. This is a fairly correct estimate of the length of the Indus and indicates the length of greater Aryana). The length, beginning from the Caspian Gates, as it is laid down in Asiatic Stathmi (a listing of the caravan stations), is estimated in two different ways: from the Caspian Gates to Alexandreia (some say Herat, but there are various cities given that name) among the Arii through Parthia is one and the same road. Then a road leads in a straight line through Bactriana, and over the pass of the mountain to Ortospana (some identify as Kabul, others as Kandahar), to the meeting of the three roads from Bactria, which is among the Paropamisadæ (today’s northern Afghanistan). The other branch (of the trade/caravan roads) turns off a little from Aria towards the south to Prophthasia (today’s Farah in east-central Afghanistan?) in Drangiana (Sistan); then the remainder leads as far as the confines of India and of the Indus (the Indus, i.e. Hapta-Hindu in the Avesta, later India, refers to the northern reaches of the seven Indus tributaries and the area accessed via today’s Khyber pass and the passes further north through the Hindu Kush and Pamirs); so that the (southern) road through the Drangæ (Drangiana – the watershed of the Helmand river, today’s west-central Afghanistan and in many old maps a part of south Aria) and the Arachoti (Arachosia, just east of Drangiana, central-eastern Afghanistan today) is longer, the whole amounting to 15,300 stadia (3,000 km). But if we deduct 1300 stadia (260 km), we shall have the remainder as the length of the country in a straight line, namely, 14,000 stadia (2,800 km.*); for the length of the coast is not much less, although some persons increase this sum by adding to the 10,000 stadia Carmania (Kerman), which is reckoned at 6000 stadia (1,200 km. in length). For they seem to reckon it either together with the gulfs, or together with the Carmanian coast within the Persian Gulf. (This appears to mean that Aryana had a long coastline, the length of which was “not much less” than the length of the greater nation, and that some include Carmania (Kerman) as part of greater Aryana.
(Strabo 15.2.8 continued. Translation by Horace Leonard Jones): He says that the breadth of the country is the length of the Indus from the Paropamisus mountain to the outlets, a distance of twelve thousand stadia (though some say thirteen thousand); and that its length from the Caspian Gates, as recorded in the work entitled Asiatic Stathmi, is stated in two ways: that is, as far as Alexandreia in the country of the Arii, from the Caspian Gates through the country of the Parthians, there is one and the same road; and then, from there, one road leads in a straight line through Bactriana and over the mountain pass into Ortospana to the meeting of the three roads from Bactra, which city is in the country of the Paropamisadae; whereas the other turns off slightly from Aria towards the south to Prophthasia in Drangiana, and the remainder of it leads back to the boundaries of India and to the p143Indus; so that this road which leads through the country of the Drangae and Arachoti is longer, its entire length being fifteen thousand three hundred stadia. But if one should subtract one thousand three hundred, one would have as the remainder the length of the country in a straight line, fourteen thousand stadia; for the length of the seacoast is not much less,125 although some writers increase the total, putting down, in addition to the ten thousand stadia, Carmania with six thousand more; for they obviously reckon the length either along with the gulfs or along the part of the Carmanian seacoast that is inside the Persian Gulf.
[Our note: *2,800 km. This is a tremendous length. Even if we curve the road, the length exceeds the distance between today’s Tehran, Iran and Hotan/Khotan that is part of Eastern China today. Significantly, this includes Tajikistan.]
(Strabo 15.2.8 continued. Translation by H.C. Hamilton & W. Falconer): The name also of Ariana is extended so as to include some part of Persia, Media, and the north of Bactria and Sogdiana; for these nations speak nearly the same language.
(Strabo 15.2.8 continued. Translation by Horace Leonard Jones): The name of Ariana is further extended to a part of Persia and of Media, as also to the Bactrians and Sogdians on the north; for these speak approximately the same language, with but slight variations.
[Our note: Ancient Ariana included parts of the more modern Persia and Media.]
Aryan Homeland Location: Location of the Aryan homeland, Airyana Vaeja
Airyana Vaeja’s Features
In our page on Airyana Vaeja in the Zoroastrian scriptures [the Avesta’s books of Yasht (13.143 & 144), Vendidad (Chapter 1, 1-16), and Yasna (10.13-14)], we made the following observations regarding the neighbours of Airyana Vaeja:
Sugd / Sogdiana
Mouru / Margiana
The third nation listed after Airyana Vaeja in the Vendidad, is Mouru. Mouru is commonly identified with the area around modern Merv and the Murghab / Murgab river and its delta in present-day Turkmenistan – though this identification is by no means certain.
Balkh / Bactria & King Vishtasp
The fourth Vendidad nation is Bakhdhim / Bakhdhi / Bakhdi / Balkh located in Northern Afghanistan. Among the first “hearers and teachers” of Zarathushtra’s message listed in the Farvardin Yasht (13.99) was King Vishtasp. Later texts state that King Vishtasp, a king of the Kayanian dynasty, was king of Bakhdhi/Balkh, and that Zarathushtra died in Bakhdhi/Balkh, killed by a Turanian. In these texts, the Amu Darya (Oxus) river formed the north-eastern border between ancient Bakhdhi and Turan (Sugd). Further upstream, a portion of the Amu Darya river ran through Bakhdhi.
Balkh became the capital city of the Kayanian kings and ancient Airan, the successor state to Airyana Vaeja and the predecessor state to modern Iran.
Today, all three regions noted above claim Zarathushtra as their native son and make some claim to his legacy. The claims include the region being his birthplace, where he received his revelations, where he first propounded his religion, where he composed his message and the scriptures, and where he died. No other region makes these claims to this extent.
What this indicates is, that regardless of the veracity of the claims, there is a strong possibility that Zarathushtra travelled to these regions and that they were within travelling distance of Airyana Vaeja, Zarathushtra’s birthplace. By listing these nations separately from Airyana Vaeja, the Avesta’s Vendidad is probably also stating that the three lands were separate from Airyana Vaeja. Since Zoroastrian texts also tell us that Airyana Vaeja was Zarathushtra’s native home, we can surmise that while Zarathushtra could have travelled to these lands spreading his message, none of them was his native home.
Airyana Vaeja’s Terrain
The Meher Yasht gives us a most useful understanding of Airyana Vaeja’s location. It not only helps us to rule in certain possibilities, it helps to rule out certain lands.
Verses 10.13-14 of the Meher Yasht state that the Aryan land had many mountains, valleys, and pastures (pouru vastraongho) that supported cattle (gave). It was rich in waters (afento), deep lakes (jafra varayo) and wide rivers. The land, while mountainous had alpine meadows and fertile, well-watered vales.
Rivers of Airyana Vaeja: Daraja and Daitya
Mention is made that a significant river Daraja (Darejya), on whose upper banks stood Zarathushtra’s father’s house, ran through Airyana Vaeja. Another river in Airyana Vaeja is the Ditya, also called Vanguhi Daitya in Vendidad and Daitik in Middle Persian. The Vendidad at 1.2 (see) below and at 2.20 mentions the river Vanguhi Daitya in Airyana Vaeja first as the river of Airyana Vaeja and then as the river where King Jamsheed gained communion with Ahura Mazda, God. The Aban Yasht at 5.17 also speaks of the Vanguhi Daitya in Airyana Vaeja.
Both rivers are mentioned as separate rivers in the Lesser Bundahishn (24.14 – 16, E. W. West in Sacred Books of the East Vol. 5, 1897): “14. The Daitya River is the chief of streams. 15. The Daraja river is the chief of exalted rivers, for the dwelling of the father of Zartosht was on its banks, and Zartosht was born there.” We read here that Zarathushtra (Zartosht in Middle Persian) was born on the banks of the Daraja River in Airyana Vaeja (Iran Vej in Middle Persian) upon whose banks stood his father’s house. The Lesser Bundahishn at 20.32 states, “The Daraja river is in Eranvej, on the bank (bar) of which was the dwelling of Pourushasp, the father of Zartosht (Zarathushtra).”
The Avestan word ‘vanghuhi’ stems from ‘vanghu’ meaning good. It is contracted to ‘veh’ in Middle Persian. Daitya is said to relate to ‘law’ i.e. Zarathushtra receiving revealed law from Ahura Mazda, God. In Hindu scriptures, the Daitya are a clan of Asuras.
The river called Vanguhi Daitya in Avestan is sometimes identified as the Veh in Middle Persian Pahlavi texts. In the Middle Persian Bundahishns, the Veh River is in turn is identified both as the Amu Darya / Oxus River as well as the Indus River. However, in the Bundahishn, the Daitya river itself that in Avestan passages is accompanied by the word Vanguhi is in the Bundahishn mentioned without the word Vanguhi or Veh. While the Bundahishns state that other rivers that otherwise have their own name are sometimes called Veh, the Bundahishns’ Veh River which seems identical to today’s Amu Darya / Oxus is the only river in the Bundahishns that is not directly associated with another name. In other words in the Bundahishns, the river is only named the Veh and we are not told if it had another accompanying of associated name.
Regarding identification of the Veh with the Oxus / Amu Darya River, the Lesser Bundahishn at 20.22 states that “the Balkh river comes out from the Aparsen likely Gk. Paropamisus(interestingly also called the Alburz in some modern maps. ) at the eastern end of the Hindu Kush mountain of Bamikan (likely Bamian/Bamiyan), and flows on to the Veh river.” Today, the Balkh river rises in the eastern Hindu Kush in Bamiyan province and flows north into Balkh province. Before irrigation reduced its flow, it was a tributary of the Amu Darya]. The Lesser Bundahishn at 20.22 also states that “The Teremet river flows away to the Veh river.” Teremet is identified by West as Tajikistan’s Termez today across the Amu Darya / Oxus from Balkh province. Termez would have been the gateway to the northern valley of Bakhdhi/Balkh, a valley that leads to Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s present capital.
*[Alburz/Elburz/Alborz mountains: (Also see Mountains below) Today, the mountains of northern Iran are called the Elburz. Wikipedia also reports, “As recently as the 19th century, a peak in the northernmost range in the Hindu Kush system, just south of Balkh, was recorded as Mount Elburz in British army maps.” The name Alborz is said to derive from the Avestan Hara Berezaiti or Hara-Berez, the Hara mountains. Hara-Barez became Har-borz and eventually Al-borz. As did the legendary rivers of Airyana have their source in the Hara-Bareza (meher Yasht 10.14), the Bundahishn continues the tradition of ascribing the source of the principal Veh rivers in the Alborz.]
Middle Persian texts and the Shahnameh tell us that the Amu Darya or Oxus river (see map below) formed a border of ancient Bakhdi, and that the border between Airan (the later name form of Airyana Vaeja) and Turan was also the Amu Darya. The Amu Darya river runs from the Pamirs (where it is called the Panj) to the Aral Sea and today, to some extent, forms the border between four nations, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. A portion of the Amu Darya river runs north of present day Balkh in Afghanistan.
Regarding identification of the Veh with the Indus River, the Greater Bundahishn at 11.A.2 as translated by B. T. Anklesaria states, “The river Veh passes on in the east, goes to the land of Sind and pours into the sea in India. There they call it the river Mitran [and also call it the river Indus].” The Lesser Bundahishn translated by E. W. West, at 20.7 states, “The Mehrva River they call the Hendva River…”. Hendva would be connected to Hindu. 20.9 also states, “The Veh River passes on in the east, goes through the land of Sind, and flows to the sea in Hindustan, and they call it there the Mehra River.” We note that this river is called Hendva, Mehrava, Mehra, Mitran (Mithra/Mitra and Mehr are related words, the former being the older form which seems to be the trend in the Greater Bundahishn. The Lesser Bundahishn starts with the declaration at 20.1 that two rivers flow from the north – from the Alburz (Mountains) – and that the one towards the East is the Veh River.
We are therefore left with two Veh rivers, one identified with the Amu Darya (Oxus) and the other with the Mitran or Mehra (the Indus). Masudi in his Historical Encyclopaedia writes that the “Guebers (sic) i.e. Zoroastrians, felt that the Jaihun (Oxus) was connected with the Indus to form one river, the Veh.” The ancients may have perceived the Veh as a mythical circumventing river, one that circumvented Airyana in the east and the west – perhaps even all the way around.
Rivers Flowing into Neighbouring Countries
Verse 10.14 of the Avesta’s Mehr Yasht, states that the rivers which originate in Airyo shayanem*, the Aryan abode, flow swiftly into the countries of Mourum [later Margu(sh) (English-Greek Margiana) and eventually Marv located in today’s Turkmenistan], Haroyum (Aria in modern Afghanistan), Sughdhem (Sugd in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) and Khairizem [Khvarizem beside the Amu Darya (Oxus) River in Uzbekistan]. [*Note: shayanem is used to denote a few countries/lands/abodes in the Vendidad’s list of sixteen nations. As “abode” or “dwelling place”, the word may denote a region rather than a country, a region over which the Airya had spread by that time.]
There are very few sets of rivers that meet this description and they all originate in the mountains of Afghanistan and Tajikistan radiating westward from the Pamirs. Since 1. Bakhdhi (Balkh) is a significant omission from this list, 2. Khairizem is a nation not mentioned directly in the Vendidad’s list of nations and appears to be a “younger” nation than the Vendidad nations [together with Parsa (Persia) and Mada (Media) also not mentioned], and 3. the Aryan lands are called by a slightly different name than in the Vendidad, one possibility is that this Meher Yasht description was part of the younger Avesta, by time of whose writing, the original Aryan lands, Airyana Vaeja, had begun to move westward along the northern Hindu Kush slopes, towards the Kuh-e Baba, Kuh-e Hissar and Safid Kuh – the northern Afghanistan mountain region south of Balkh. To us it is not without significance that there is a Murgab River in the Pamir highlands of Tajikistan, then in the northern Afghanistan and eventually in Pars.
The larger river flowing into Mourum (Eng-Gk Margiana) is the Murgab River; the main river flowing through Haroyum (Eng-Gk Aria) is the Hari-Rud River; the main river flowing through Sughdhem/Sugd (Eng-Gk Sogdiana) is the Zerafshan River. The Kashka Darya also flows through Sughdhem. Sughdhem was likely bordered by the Amu Darya (Oxus) in the west/south-west and Syr Darya (Jaxartes) Rivers in the east/north-east. There are of course, other smaller rivers. The Pamirs together with the Hindu Kush and its western extensions including the Safeed Kuh and Siah Kuh mountains that border today’s Northern Afghanistan are where these rivers originate.
The Lesser & Greater Bundahishns at LB Chapter 20 and GB Chapter 11.A respectively provide additional information. We reproduce here portions of the Bundahishn related to the rivers of Central Asia identified above via the Meher Yasht. However, the Bundahishns only assign the rivers Daraja and Daitya to ancient Iran-Vej (Airyana Vaeja). Regardless, we still see these lands the rivers flow through as part of greater Aryan nation, Iran-Shahr:
LB 13. The Daitya river is the river which comes out from Eranvej, and goes out through the hill-country; of all rivers the noxious creatures in it are most, as it says, that the Daitya river is full of noxious creatures. [Our note: it is significant that the Daitya is noted as “going through hill country”.] GB 11.A.7 states “The river Daitya comes out of Eranvej and proceeds to Dutistan.” We have yet to identify Dutistan.
The other rivers implied by the Meher Yasht are described by the Bundahishns as follows:
The Bundahishns make no reference to the Harirud originating in Airyana Vaeja as implied by the Meher Yasht. GB 11.A.11 “The Hari-rud flows from the Hapursen range.” LB 20.16: “The Haro river flows out from the Aparsen range (Gk. Paropamisus). The source of the Harirud is just across the Hissar range from the source of the Balkh River.” The Zend River “passing through the mountains of Panjistan” is a tributary of the Harirud.
Rivers of Sughdhem/Sugd
GB 11.A.15: “The river Khvajand goes through the middle of Samarkand and Ferghana. They call it the river Khshart/Ashart/Ashard (Jaxartes/Syr Darya).” LB 20.20: “The Khvejand river goes on through the midst of Samarkand and Pargana, and they call it also the river Ashard.” Khujand (cf. Khvajand) is currently a Tajik city beside the upper reaches of the Syr Darya (Jaxartes).
GB 11.A.14:”The river Zeshmund, on the side of Soghd (Sugd, Sogdiana), pours back into the river Khvajand.” LB 20.19: “The Zishmand river, in the direction of Soghd, flows away towards (from?) the Khvejand river.” These two statements are somewhat contradictory and a more critical translations of the originals is required. The river sounds like the Zerafshan. If this is so, the statement should read that the river flows away from the Khvajand (Jaxartes/Syr Darya) and into the Veh, the Amu Darya or Oxus. If not, it denotes another river, perhaps a tributary of the Khvajand.
Curiously, the LB at 20.30 states, “The Kasak river comes out through a ravine (kaf) in the province of Tus (the birthplace of Ferdowsi in Khorasan?), and they call it there the Kasp river; more- over, the river, which is there the Veh, they call the Kasak; even in Sind they call it the Kasak.” Translator E. W. West feels “Sind” here is a corruption or misprint of the intended name “Seni” leading the the line reading, “even in Seni they call it the Kasak.” Seni is a name mention in the Lesser Bundahishn at 15.29: “the country of Seni, that which is Kinistan/Chinistan”. E. W. West further postulates that in this context “Kinistan” may refer to Samarkand the principal city of Sugd. He goes on the identify Seni as the Saini of the Farvardin Yasht at 13.143,144, one of the five lands praised in the Yasht having holy followers. There is today the River Kashka that flows from Sugd today.
Murgab. River of Marv
LB 20.21. “The Marv river, a glorious river in the east, flows out from the Aparsen range (Gk. Paropamisus).” “GB 11.A.16: “The Marv-rud, the river ‘Full of glory,’ in Khvarasan (Khorasan?), flows from the Hapursen range.” The source of the Murgab is in the vicinity of the sources of the Balkh and Harirud rivers – the eastern extremity of the Hindu Kush Mountains. The mention of the Marv-rud i.e. the Murgab being a river of Khvarasan (Khorasan?) is noteworthy.
Amu Darya (Oxus), Balkh and Termez Rivers
As we have stated earlier, the Lesser Bundahishn at 20.22 states that “the Balkh river comes out from the Aparsen (Gk. Paropamisus; interestingly also called the Alborz on some maps today) at the eastern end of the Hindu Kush] mountain of Bamikan (likely Bamian/Bamiyan), and flows on to the Veh river.” Today, the Balkh river rises in the eastern Hindu Kush in Bamiyan province and flows north into Balkh province. Before irrigation reduced its flow, it was a tributary of the Amu Darya]. GB 11.A.17 states: “The river Balkh enters the mountain Bamian [from] the Hapursen and pours into the river Veh.”
The Lesser Bundahishn at 20.22 also states that “The Teremet river flows away to the Veh river.” Teremet is identified by West as Tajikistan’s Termez today across the Amu Darya/Oxus from Balkh province. Termez would have been the gateway to the northern valley of Bakhdhi/Balkh, a valley that leads to Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s present capital.
|Mosaic of a snake swallowing an object from Central Asia
dating to the Bronze Age (2500-1500 BCE)
The Vendidad at 1.2 (translation by James Darmesteter, SBE, 1898) states: “The first of the good lands and countries which I, Ahura Mazda, created, was the Airyana Vaeja, by the Vanguhi Daitya. Thereupon came Angra Mainyu, who is all death, and he counter-created the serpent in the river and winter, a work of the Daevas.”
The Greater Bundahishn translated by B. T. Anklesaria at Chapter 11.A.7 & 8 states “The river Daitya comes out of Eranvej and proceeds to Dutistan. Of all the rivers, the noxious creatures abound the most in it. As one says, ‘The river Daitya is full of noxious creatures’.”
The Indus on its part was known to have alligators which could perhaps have been identified as a form of snake. Captain John Wood in his A Journey to the Source of the River Oxus, (London) 1872, p. 10-11 describes his encounter with a herd of alligators while travelling up the lower Insus.
Mountains – Hara Berezaiti, the Hara Mountains
The Mehr Yasht at 10.13 and 14 states that the Aryan abode (airyo-shayanem) was “where the high mountains (garayo berezanto), rich in pastures and waters, yield plenty to the cattle”, and that when the Sun rises above the taro (peaks – see further discussion below) of the Hara, it casts its golden rays down on the abode of the Aryans.
Reading the Zamyad Yasht at (19.1) we are given the impression that the Hara was one of two concentric rings of mountains, or at least ones that “lie all around”. Many authors add “encircling the earth” or words to that effect to their translations, but there are no such words in the verse. The Yasht also states two thousand, two hundred and forty four peaks rose from these mountains and names several.
The Aban Yasht at 5.21 states that (King) Hushang paid homage at the “upa upabde” (sometime translated as “base” or “enclosure”. Upa means “near”. We read “near the environs”) of the Hara.
In Mehr Yasht 10.118, we are introduced to the term “Hara Berezaiti”. The modern word Alburz is said to be derived from Hara Berezaiti. Hara Berezaiti it is said in the literature became Hara-Barez (in Yashts 5.21 and 17.24) then Har-borz and eventually Al-borz. The word “hara” is said to mean “watch, guard, defence” and is derived from from the Old Iranian prefix har- meaning “to pay attention, watch over, protect”. The implication is that the Hara Mountains got their name since they served as a defensive wall against invaders or plunderers. Indeed, the Greater Bundahishn at 24.24 notes that every three years, people of non-Arian nations would gather on the Alburz (Hara) mountains in order to cause harm – perhaps sweeping down into the Aryan lands from ridges and passes. The word “berezaiti” is said to stem from “berez” meaning “height”, “exalted” or even “towering”. It is also said to have evolved into the New Persian words “boland” meaning “tall” or “high” and “bozorg” meaning “big” or “great”. With “berezaiti” as an adjective we are left with the impression that the Hara was a high protective barrier. The one mountain range that fits this description very well is the Hindu Kush. Hindu means resident of the (upper) Indus region and Kush is said to be the same as “kusht” meaning “kill”. The Hindu Kush is a natural barrier between the Indus and Kabul valleys (to the south) and Wakhan valley (to the north), and by extension the Badakshan/Pamir region.
Nowadays, Alburz/Alborz/Elburz is the name of the mountains in northern Iran. Wikipedia also reports, “As recently as the 19th century, a peak in the northernmost range in the Hindu Kush system, just south of Balkh, was recorded as Mount Elburz in British army maps (i.e. the western arm of the Hindu Kush).” The same mountains are also called the Aparsen (likely Gk. Paropamisus) in the Bundahishn. We are also given to understand that the highest peak of the Caucasus is also called “Elbrus”. The poet Ferdowsi’s references to the Alburz in his epic, the Shahnameh, lead us to the environs of Hind, perhaps meaning the mountains of the Upper Indus, the Hindu Kush, Pamirs, Karakorum and Himalayas – the Alburz or Hara Berezaiti of old. Strabo would call the Hara Berezaiti the Taurus Mountains, a string of mountains that ran from Turkey to the boundaries of China.
The two Bundahishns, the Middle Persian or Pahlavi Zoroastrian texts, see the Alburz (Hara Berezaiti) in two ways (see Lesser Bundahishn 20.1): one the mythical mountains that encircled the earth – the primal mountain range from which all other mountain ranges arose – and two, a specific group of mountain ranges in which two rivers at east and west of the Aryan lands had their source (and according to Zadsparam at 6.21, the source of an additional “great” eighteen rivers). We see these two aspects reflected elsewhere. The Zamyad Yasht reads in a factual manner while some other passages tend to add more fantastic elements. From the Zamyad Yasht we do get the sense that other mountain ranges rise from (perhaps radiate?) from the Hara and that it could conceivably lend its name to connected mountain chains. By the time the Middle Persian Bundahishns and other texts were written, the description is almost entirely mythological as are parallel descriptions in Hindu and Buddhist texts we describe below. In mythology, the Alburz encircled the earth – a band like the Milky Way of the heavens.
As the mythical mountains that surrounded the earth, the Alburz mountains are similar to the Lokaloka of the Hindu scriptures. [Lokaloka means “world-no world” and is in Vedic Hindu mythology, a magnificent belt of mountains girdling the outermost of the seven lands (Phl. keshvar / Vedic dvipa) and seas and one which separates the visible world from the region of darkness beyond. The Lokaloka is said to be ten thousand yojanas in breadth and height. The modern equivalent of a yojana is disputed and is thought to be 6 to 15 kilometres making the mythical Lokaloka some 60,000 to 150,000 km. in circumference.]
The Mehr Yasht at 10.118 talks about the Sun riding rising above the peaks (tara) of the Hara Berezaiti. Tara (also spelt Tera, Terak or Taera) is sometime taken to mean a specific mountain in the Hara. E. W. West translates the Lesser Bundahishn (LB) at 12.2 as “Terak of Alburz” i.e. Tera of the Hara Berezaiti. When West translates 12.4 as “The Terak of Alburz is that through which the stars, moon and sun pass in, and through it they come back”, but when B. T. Anklesaria translates 9.6 of the Greater Bundahishn (GB) as “The Tera of Alburz is that through which the Stars, Moon and Sun revolve and through which they come back”, it makes more sense to read Tera(k) as the peaks or the space between peaks through which the stars, moon and sun rise and set. Indeed, at LB 5.4. we have “As it is said that it is the Terak of Alburz from behind which my sun and moon and stars return again” and at LB 5.5, “For there are a hundred and eighty apertures (rojin) in the east, and a hundred and eighty in the west, through Alburz; and the sun, every day, comes in through an aperture, and goes out through an aperture….”
Ichaporia and Humbach as well as Sethna do not translate “taera” as the name of a mountain but rather as “peak”. However, it does make more sense in the contexts above to read it as several or a set of peaks rather than a single peak. But that sense of a single peak rising into the heavens is now embedded in Hindu and Buddhist mythology as well. In the Zamyad Yasht, there is no mythology in the description of the mountains. They are listed quite matter-of-factly and the word “taera” appears buried in the middle of verse 19.6 in a rather obscure manner.
Mary Boyce informs us that when the Khotanese Saka became Buddhists, they referred to Mt. Sumeru of Buddhist legends as Ttaira Haraysa, the peak of Hara. Mt. Sumeru in Buddhist mythology lies at the centre of the earth and according to Anklesaria’s translation of GB 5B.1, “Mount Tera is in the middle of the earth.”
Principal Hara Peaks – Mount Hukaria and Daitik
The Greater Bundahishn translated by B. T. Anklesaria (at 17.18) describes the Hukar (Huk-airya in the Avesta) as being the ‘chief’ of the summits. Huk-airya means the ‘good Arya’ or the ‘good and beneficent Arya’ – the environs of which, Airyana Vaeja, was a paradise with ideal conditions: no inclement weather, natural beauty and where the people enjoyed good health. The GB at 9.3 also states that, “As the other mountains have grown out of Alburz, in number, two thousand two hundred and forty-four mountains, that are the lofty Hugar/Hukar (Huk-airya), the Tera of Alburz, the Daitih peak….” We note that the Hugar/Hukar (Huk-airya) is described at both the chief of the mountains as well as lofty (tall – towering above others. At GB 9.7, “The lofty Hugar/Hukar (Huk-airya) is that from which the water of Aredvisur descends from the height of a thousand men.” At 9.9, “The Daitih (Chakad-i-Daitik in the Lesser Bundahishn) peak is that which is in the middle of the world, of the height of a hundred men, whereon is the Chinvad bridge; they judge the soul at that place.” Much attention is given to “Tera” being the name of a pivotal mountain at the centre of the earth, but in the Daitih we have another contender for this description. The height of a hundred men does not make it a very tall mountain and one suitable perhaps for a significant temple or sanctury (see the thangka painting below). We could have two versions of the myth, one with a very tall central mountain and the other with a shorter mountain crowned by a temple or sanctuary as depicted by the thangka painting below. Both versions appear to exist currently either explicitly or implicitly, and the shorter version appears to make more sense with reality.
The combined manner in which the Hukar, Tera and Daitik are described in the Bundahishn has resonance with the manner in which Mount Meru, Sumeru, is described in Hindu and Buddhist texts.
Mount Meru / Sumeru
The Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, refer to the Mount Hara as Mount Meru or Sumeru (the Great Meru), and describe the Himalayas as stemming from Mount Meru which itself stands at the centre of the known world. The Vedas also refer to Arya Varta as Paradesha, the original country. In the Vedas, Bharatavarsha, Ancient India, lay to the south of the Himalayas.
The Wikipedia article on Jambudvipa, the environs in which Mount Meru stands, identifies Jambudvipa with the Pamir region. In the Vedas, each of the four sides of Meru are made of four different precious substances: the south of lapis-lazuli, the west of ruby, the north of gold and the east of silver (or crystal). The Pamir-Badakhshan region was noted for precisely these precious substances and home to the only known lapis mines in antiquity. Further, the lapis mines were in the south of the Pamir region.
Airyana Vaeja as Paradise. Shambhala / Shangri-La
|Buddhist thangka showing Shambhala with Mount Meru & a temple in the centre
The two circular mountain ranges remind us of the description of the Hara and Zeredaza Mountains
in the Avesta’s Zamyad Yasht “lying all around” – the Zeredaza being the outer range.
As we have noted above, Zoroastrian texts describe Airyana Vaeja as being mountainous with fertile meadows and valleys. In addition, the opening words of the Avestan Vendidad’s chapter listing the sixteen nations, states that if God had not made other countries beautiful in some manner, all the world would have swarmed into Airyana Vaeja on account of its great beauty and – as mentioned elsewhere in the Avesta (see next paragraph) – because of its wise king and good government, law and order, noble people and serenity. Airyana Vaeja was a paradise on earth – a land of peace and serenity, the best place to live and raise a family.
The heavenly nature of Airyana Vaeja during the Jamshidi era (see Weather Change below) reached mythic proportions in Yasht 19.33, the Zamyad Yasht. Then, the weather was neither cold nor hot, there was no untruth and envy, people were undying, water and plants never drying. All because King Jamshid ruled wisely and the people lived honestly. However, when the king lost his grace and the people lost their noble ways, Airyana Vaeja became a paradise lost.
Tibetan Buddhism’s book of Kala-Chakra, the Time-Cycle, and Tibetan Buddhism’s predecessor religion, Bon, built on and popularized this concept of a lost and hidden paradise on earth, now known to the world as Shangri-La.
[The founding of the Bon religion is ascribed to Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche who was born – by some estimates 18,000 years ago – in the land of Tagzig Olmo Lung Ring. Tagzig, is believed to be a form of the name Tajik. (The name Shenrab sounds Iranian as well.) The doctrine taught by Tonpa Shenrab was spread by his disciples and their student-translators to adjacent countries such as Zhang-Zhung (also Zhangzhung, Shang Shung or Xang Xung – a land north of the Himalayas, which contained Mount Kailash in today’s Western Tibet), India (northern Indus valley), Kashmir, China and eventually Greater Tibet. Tonpa Shenrab is reputed to have visited present-day western Tibet once. On that visit he found the people unprepared to receive the entire body of his teachings, but he prophesied that his teachings would flourish in Tibet in the coming ages. The students of his disciples continued his mission and Tibetan Bon scriptures were translated from texts in the language of Zhang-Zhung.
[Bon claims to have spread south to the Indian subcontinent and to have influenced the development of Vedic Hinduism. Perhaps pre-Tibetan Bon was a form of the primordial Aryan religion before Zoroastrianism and Vedic Hinduism. Buddhism in turn evolved out of Vedic Hinduism (c. 400 BCE). Completing a full circle, today’s Bon is so heavily influenced by Buddhism that it sounds like a Buddhist sect. Perhaps some scholars may take it upon themselves to try and isolate the precepts of the pre-Buddhism Bon.
[It may be of interest to those studying the weather change in Airyana Vaeja, that pollen and tree ring analysis indicates the Chang Tang plateau in Northern Tibet had a far more liveable environment than it has today – one that supported a primordial civilization – until the climate become colder and drier starting around 1500 BCE, a climate change that caused the population to migrate out of the northern plateau. This authors also feels that the ancient Aryan and Zoroastrian link to western Tibet is further exemplified by the common tradition of exposing the dead to birds. Also see our blog, Iranian-Aryan Connections with Western Tibet.]
At the centre of the land of Tagzig (called Shambhala in the Kalachakra) was Olmo Lungring which had at its centre, Yungdrung Gutsek, a four-sided mountain similar to Mount Meru / Sumeru (see above). The mountain is surrounded by temples, cities and parks. To the mountain’s south is the Barpo Sogye palace, where Tonpa Shenrab was born. The complex of palaces, rivers and parks with Mount Yungdrung Gutseg in the centre constitutes the inner region (Nang-gling) of Olmo Lungring. The intermediate region (Bar-gling) consists of twelve cities, four of which lie in the four cardinal directions. The third region includes the outer land (mTha’-gling). These three regions are encircled by snow-capped mountains and an ocean.
The mountain Yungdrung Gutsek has nine Yungdrungs (swastikas) ascending like a staircase. It is not without significance that the swastika plays an important symbolic role in both the Bon and Vedic Hindu religions. In Bon, The nine swastikas represent the Nine Ways. The swastika (Yungdrung) itself is a symbol of permanence and indestructibility of the mind-stream, the wisdom of Bon. The full name of Bon is Yungdrung Bon meaning Everlasting Truth.
The four sides of the mountain faced the four cardinal directions. From the four corners, each of which represent four archetypal thought forms, flow four rivers:
– From the thought form of a snow lion flows the river Narazara to the east,
– From the thought form of a horse flows the river Pakshi to the north,
– From the thought form of a peacock flows the river Gyim Shang to the west, and
– From the thought form of an elephant flows the river Sindhu (In Persian: Hindu which later became Indus) to the south.
A few concepts emerge from the description of Tagzig’s terrain within which lies the four-sided mountain, Yungdrung Gutsek. First, while our translation states the singular, a four-sided mountain, a mountain in all the related ancient Avestan, Vedic, and Bon texts frequently refers to a group or range of mountains with several peaks. For instance Hara Berezaiti contained two thousand, two hundred and forty four mountains peaks (see above). Next, from the four-sided Yungdrung Gutsek mountain(s) arose several rivers flowing in all the cardinal directions. In addition, this region was north of the northern Indus region. (Also see our section on the four-sided topography of the Pamirs. It is unreasonable to expect the geographic descriptions in the ancient texts to align perfectly on a modern map. The ancients used approximations formulated from the accounts of travellers over several generations and good examples of this contention are the maps drawn by classical Western authors such as Ptolemy.)
Tibetan Buddhism’s Kalachakra uses the Hindu Vedic legend of Mount Meru (Avestan Hara Berezaiti) and surrounds Mount Meru with the mythic kingdom of Shambhala, a Sanskrit word meaning the land of peace. Shambhala, also spelt Shambala or Shamballa, is said to be the land of the Living Fire and Gyanganj, the home of immortal wisdom and the omniscient wise god of time (descriptions some use for Ahura Mazda, God, in Zoroastrianism). The concept, description and qualities of Shambala coincide with those for Arya Varta / Airyana Vaeja, the Aryan homeland, and help provide us with added information on its possible location.
According to the Buddhist Kalachakra, Shambhala, presently hidden to the rest of the world, is a paradise of peace, tranquility, honesty and wisdom. It is home of the primordial and highest spiritual teachings, a tantra of the cycle of time now hidden from us but one that will eventually save the world from evil. Before it adopted Buddhism, the people were followers of the Mlechha, a Yavana or western, religion, some of whom worshiped the sun. Emulating the time periods in Zoroastrian eschatology which uses a cycle of time, as well as emulating the Zoroastrian concept of a final struggle between good against evil, the Buddhist legend states that as time progresses, the world around Shambala will succumb to evil. However, three millennia after ancient Shambhala king first travelled to India and adopted Buddhism, the Shambhalians will emerge to save the world. There will be a epic battle between the righteous Shambhalians and the surrounding evil forces – a battle in which the righteous Shambhalians will prevail and defeat evil forever. As we have noted, this legend closely parallels Zoroastrian legends that presage a final struggle between the forces of good and evil in which the good, the ashavan, will prevail, transforming the world to a paradise, a heaven, on earth – the vahishtem anghuim – the transformative event being frasho-kereti.
Shambhala has both an outer temporal and an inner spiritual meaning. In the outer meaning, Shambhala is a land that is only accessible to the pure in heart. Those with impure motives will lose their way in the intervening deserts and mountains, blinded by storms. Representing the inner meaning, some thangka paintings of Shambhala depict the kingdom surrounding Mount Meru as an eight-petal lotus – a symbol for the heart chakra and an indication that Shambhala is to be found in a person’s heart.
This author therefore proposes that since Shambhala, the land surrounding Mount Meru, is identified as the Vedic Arya Varta, and since the Vedic Arya Varta in turn corresponds to the Avestan Airyana Vaeja (which contains Mount Hara), that the land surrounding Shambhala, Mount Meru and Airyana Vaeja are intimately linked if not the same land. If this author’s association is correct, what all four traditions, Zoroastrian, Hindu, Bon and Buddhist, have preserved, is the topography of ancient Airyana Vaeja – a land of fertile valleys and alpine meadows ringed by high snow-capped high mountains.
Weather Change in Airyana Vaeja During Jamshid’s Reign
(Note: The name Jamshid is a later version of the name Yima-Srira or Yima-Khshaeta, meaning Yima the radiant, in the Vendidad. In the Avesta, Jamshid is called Yima son of Vivanghat, while in the Vedas, he is called Yama son of Vivasvant.)
According to Zoroastrian texts as well as Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, legendary king of Airyana Vaeja, King Jamshid, initiated the observance of Nowruz, New Year’s day on the first day of spring. For King Jamshid to take this step, Airyana Vaeja must have experienced the beginning of spring and the end of winter around the spring equinox or March 21.
Further, Yasna 9.5 (similarly, Vendidad II.I.6) also states that “in the reign of Yima, there was neither cold nor heat” – a temperate climate by definition. Additional references (see * below), state that the weather in Airyana Vaeja at the outset of the Jamshedi era was equitable. However, the Vendidad and other texts also inform us that a thousand two hundred years into the Jamshedi era, Airyana Vaeja experienced severe and long winters (for a further discussion on the Jamshedi era and the weather change, see our page Aryan Prehistory)
[*References to King Jamshid/Yima: Vendidad II.I.1-20(41) and II.I.21(42)-43(140); Yasna 9.4-5; Farvardin Yasht 23.130; Aban Yasht 5.25-26; Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh.]
Zoroastrians and Tibetans share the practice of exposing the bodies of their deceased to birds or prey, and to our knowledge they are they only two cultural groups in the world to have employed these practices with any consistency and as an intrinsic part of their traditional / religious rites of passage. They actual methods employed were quite different and the are no records of the Tibetans using towers of silence, dakhmas. This might indicate that while the conditions under which the ancient Tibetans and Zoroastrians lived were similar, they could have been neighbours but not compatriots.
Location of Airyana Vaeja, the Aryan Homeland
These observations, together with observations throughout this web site, point to a location for Airyana Vaeja, the ancient Aryan homeland, in the general vicinity of Tajikistan, southern Uzbekistan, northern Afghanistan, and south-western Turkmenistan – the approximate area in the map below.
More specifically, the observations point to the strong candidacy of the Pamir-Badakhshan region (the areas neighbouring Balkh to the east and north: the upper Amu Darya basin and the Wakhan Valley of eastern Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan), the Hindu Kush to its eastern extremity south of Balkh and bordering the Murgab and Harirud valleys, the Yagnobi , Zerafshan and Ferganavalleys, as well as the Alai mountain environs in Western Kyrgyzstan.
|Central Asia with first Vendidad lands and possible Airyana Vaeja /Aryan homeland locale|
Given that the Rig Veda is commonly thought to have been written in the Upper Indus region, we have yet one more reason to look at the area immediately to the north and north-west of the upper Indus Valley i.e. the Pamir-Badakhshan region as being a strong candidate for the homeland of the ancient Aryans, the so-called Proto Indo-Iranians.
The language of the Rig Veda and the Old Avesta are so close that they are commonly thought to be dialects such as that spoken in two neighbouring provinces and that further, they emerged from a common language philologists call Proto Indo-Iranian, another name for the language of united ancient Aryans. [Also see our page on Languages.]
Panini, the author of a grammar on Classical Sanskrit which was derived from the Vedic language was a resident of Pushkalavati, Gandhara, which is now part of modern-day Charsadda District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan and which included the Swat Valley now in northern Pakistan as well.
In the Swat-Chitral region, numerous archaeological sites have yielded graveyards dating between the second quarter of the second millennium BCE and the late centuries BCE, and with associated features leading the sites to be categorized as the Gandhara Grave Culture. The artefacts excavated from the sites show similarities and links with Central Asian as well as lower Indus Valley sites. The use of shell, coral and ivory were likely brought in via trade routes from the lower Indus plains and foothills.
A significant rock shelter site was excavated in the spring of 1967 near the township of Ghaligai / Ghalegay located on the east bank of the Swat River, some 12-15 km south of Mingora towards Barikot. At Ghaligai, the Swat Valley is a kilometres wide, flat, flood plain. Here, the river has many branches and frequently changes course. The valley itself is well cultivated and the crop fields slope gently down towards the river. Watercress and pumpkins are popular crops. Hills rise sharply for the valley. The eastern hills separate the Swat Valley from the Indus and Buner valleys while on the other side the western hills lie the Dir and Chitral valleys. The site has provided evidence of uninterrupted occupation for 3500 years starting from the second half of the 3rd millennium BCE. Three Carbon 14 dates of the earliest/lowest level give date from 2970 to 2930 BCE. artefacts from this level include pottery some with their inner surfaces burnished (presumably to make them water-proof from the inside). Some pottery shapes are similar to those found in Turkmenistan sites (Murgab Delta and the Kopet Dag hill base). Other artefacts found at Ghaligai as levell as Kili, Gul Hohammad, Sarai Kala, Jalilpur and Gumla show striking similarities and eveidence of trade of non-native materials primarily within the Aryan nations but also as far as the Arabian peninsula and China.
In a valley to the west of Ghaligai, archaeological finds at the Balambat site near Timergara (also spelt Timurgarh/Timargarha) and dated to 1500-600 BCE, show links with artefacts found in the lower Indus Valley site Mehrgarh as well as in Central Asian sites. [Balambat lies on the west bank of River Panjkora while Timergara lies across the river on the east bank. The name mean Timurgarh place of Timur (the Mohgul king). The Wikipedia page states that fire altars have also been found at Balambat indicating the resident to be “fire-worshippers” (sic). We are not concerned with the insulting language used in the Wikipedia page – rather, indications of the close links to an early Aryan settlement.
Haroyu – Sixth Vendidad Nation
There is a country that the classical Greeks and western authors called Aria (also spelt Arian, Arii) and which they located around present-day Harirud River (Old Ir. Harayu, Gk. Arios) in north-western Afghanistan’s Herat Province. (Note that the classical authors made a distinction between Aryana, all the Aryan lands, and the state of Aria which was part of Greater Aryana.) Ptolemy (90-168 CE) 6.17 and Strabo (63/64 BCE – c. 24 CE) 11.10.1 describe Aria and its location in some detail – a location close to the lands we have identified above for Airyana Vaeja. In addition, the Harirud region or present-day Herat province, are commonly identified with the sixth Vendidad nation Haroyu as well as the Achaemenian nation of Haraiva (a name that could have been derived from Arai-va). It is significant that the majority of inhabitants in Herat city, Herat Province’s capital, are ethnic Tajiks, since the Tajikistan region is a strong candidate for the location of Airyana Vaeja, the Aryan homeland. (Also see or page on Haroyu / Aria.)
Aria is a candidate for the middle Aryan nation of Airan, the kingdom that features in the poet Ferdowsi’s epic, the Shahnameh, and one that was formed after the Aryan nation had migrated westward. Were it not for Aria’s identification with Haroyu the sixth Vendidad nation, we would be compelled to consider it as the possible location of the original Airyana Vaeja. The border between Airan and its eastern neighbour, Turan / Sugd, was the middle to lower reaches of the Amu Darya (Oxus) river. The Airan of the Shahnameh had Balkh as its capital and therefore would have included the kingdom of Bactria / Balkh / Bakhdhi as a principle kingdom. Airan was bordered by Sistan to the south.
Arrian (c.87-145 CE) in Anabasis 4.6.6 states that in antiquity, Aria was considered as particularly fertile and rich in wine. This reference by Arrian to Aria having been particularly fertile in antiquity may refer to the memory of Aria’s predecessor nation, Airyana Vaeja (see above), being very fertile and a paradise on earth (rather than the present location).
Under the Sassanian dynasty (c.224 – 649 CE), the territory of Airan / Haraiva was transformed to the eastern quarter of the empire called Khurasan, Khur-a (from Khursheed meaning sun) and san (cf. stan meaning the land or place). Together, the name meant land of the (rising) sun. Greater Khorasan extended east to the Amu Darya (Oxus) River.
The maps below show the nations of the region from a Greek / European perspective. The borders and location are approximate at best, and often in error, as they are drawn from the descriptions in the classical texts. They nevertheless provide us with invaluable information. Note the mention of Aria, its location and prominence which is even more sticking in the map of the world according to Ptolemy.
|Reconstruction of Ptolemy’s map of Aria and neighbouring states|
Westward Migration of the Aryan Nation
If we are correct in surmising that the centre of the Aryan homeland moved westward accompanied by a contraction in its name, then the seat of the Aryan nation would have moved westward as follows:
– The original ancient Aryan homeland Airyana Vaeja in the eastern Central Asian regions identified above, and more specifically the Pamir-Badakhshan region
– The early middle Aryan nation Airan, the seat of the Kayanian dynasty, in Balkh (northern Afghanistan)
– The late middle Aryan nation known to the Greeks as Aria, located in Harirud-Khorasan area (north-western Afghanistan / north-eastern Iran), and
– The modern (2,500 year-old) Aryan nation Parsa, known to the West as Persia, which together with Khorasan became the Iran of today.
Aryan Religions: Pre-Zoroastrian Mazda, Asura, Deva Worshippers, Religious wars & Separations
Pre-Zoroastrian Aryan Religions
Our sources for information about the pre-Zoroastrian Aryan religions are the Zoroastrian and Hindu scriptures: the Avesta and Vedas respectively, the Middle Persian Zoroastrian texts and the poet Ferdowsi’s epic, the Shahnameh.
The description of the old Aryan religions, the names of their deities, and the groups that worshipped them, are not uniformly described in our reference texts. However, in reading the texts, some common themes do emerge, themes that allow us to attempt an understanding of the early Aryan religious beliefs, customs, and groupings – as well as the relationship between the different Aryan groups.
|Battles between the devas and asuras. The cosmic wars between the deities were symbolic of the earthly wars between the two groups|
We will examine three primary pre-Zoroastrian Aryan religions mentioned in our source texts: Mazda worship, Daeva or Deva worship and Asura worship.
1. Mazda Worship
In the Avesta’s book of Yashts, verse 13.87 of the Farvardin Yasht as well as the Middle Persian Denkard at 3.35 mention that Mazda, God, was worshipped by the Aryans from the time of the first Aryan king Gaya Maretan – in other words from the outset of Aryan history. This statement is corroborated by the poet Ferdowsi’s epic, the Shahnameh, and by Middle Persian Zoroastrian texts. In these texts, Gaya Maretan and his people were the first Mazdayasni meaning Mazda worshippers, the worshippers of God.
The word ‘mazda’ is thought by some to be related to the Sanskrit ‘medha’ meaning intelligent or wise. In usage, the word Mazda was used to mean God, that is, a creator who caused creation through wisdom, indeed, through a divine thought. Mazda therefore can be translated as God.
The opening paragraphs of the Avesta’s Farvardin Yasht and the Yasht’s verse 13.150 also tell us that Gaya Maretan and the other Pre-Zoroastrian Mazdayasni were called paoiryo-tkaesha meaning keepers of the original ancient law. In order to differentiate early Mazda worship from the later Zoroastrian Mazda worship, we will call this original Aryan religion, Mazdayasni Paoiryo-Tkaesha.
The Farvardin Yasht’s verses 89 & 90 mention that later in Aryan history, Zarathushtra proclaimed the Ahura-tkaesha, the laws of the Lord (Ahura). If the word ‘mazda’ related to the creative aspect of the divinity grounded in an ultimate concept of wisdom, the word ‘ahura’ related to the aspect of having dominion over creation through order and laws that are innate in every part and particle of creation (cf. fravashi). Zarathushtra used these two concepts to propound a belief described as Mazdayasno Zarathushtrish Vidaevo Ahura-Tkaesho, that is, Zarathushtrian Mazda-Worship opposed to the daeva through the laws of the Lord (Ahura). For the sake of brevity, we can call Zarathushtrian Mazda-Worship (i.e. post Zarathushtra) as Mazdayasni Ahura-Tkaesha.
1a. Did the Mazdayasna Religion Precede Zarathushtra?
Since, as we have just observed, both the pre- and post- Zoroastrian religions are called Mazdayasni, many authors have assumed that Zarathushtra was a reformer of a Mazdayasni religion that predated him, rather than the founder of a new religion. While Zarathushtra may have used previous concepts and while his followers may have incorporated elements of a previous religion, or religions, back into Zoroastrianism, Zarathushtra’s teachings were different enough for him to have initially experienced great difficulty in getting others to listen to him. Our section on the war of religion further illustrates the radical nature of his teachings – regardless of the words used for divinity. There are other reasons not to assume that Zarathushtra was a reformer. His concept of being a Mazdayasni was quite different from previous concepts labelled as ‘Mazdayasni’. There is an explanation for these assertions:
First, Mazda-yasni translated directly simply means God-worship rather than being the name of a religion. The form and doctrine of worship before Zarathushtra was very different from that preached by Zarathushtra, just as religions today who profess a worship of God i.e. God-worshippers, are radically different. Next, it is commonly assumed that Mazda is an Avestan name for God rather than a word for God – an assumption that may lead to incorrect conclusions. The difference is that if Mazda is the Avestan word for God, saying that the Aryans worshipped Mazda since the time of Gayo Maretan is the same as saying that the Aryans worshipped God (a supreme God) from ancient times. Mazda, or God, could have had different names through the ages, or the word for God could have changed with a change in language. For instance, if Varuna (also see below), a principle asura in the Vedas, was the name for God (Mazda) at one stage in Aryan history, then Varuna worship could also be called Mazda worship or the worship of God.
A parallel to this concept is found in the Christian Old and New Testaments as well as the Jewish Torah. There, the worship of Yahweh and Jehovah, or for that matter all the Judeo-Christian words or names for God, are synonymous with the worship of God. Despite the use of different words or names for God in the different languages of the Bible, Christians do not conclude that the Bible chronicles the worship of multiple gods throughout history. Christians say that Abraham worshipped God even though the attributes assigned to the Abrahamic God might be quite different from the more modern Christian assignment of divine attributes – thereby making Judaism and Christianity related but very different religions. Similarly, if we say that Gaya Maretan was a Mazda worshipper, the word or name for God in Pre-Zoroastrian Aryan history could have been Varuna or some other word / name, and the beliefs of the corresponding religions could also have been different, but nevertheless related, as would have been Varuna and Mitra worship, two asuras mentioned in the Rig Veda. In any event, Mazda worship before Zarathushtra might have been related but was quite different from Zarathushtra’s Mazda worship.
The Avesta’s book of Yashts, as well as portions of other Avestan books, may give us clues about the pre-Zoroastrian Mazdayasni beliefs, thereby serving a function in the Avesta similar to the Christian Bible’s Old Testament.
2. Daeva or Deva Worship
[Note: The words deva (Vedic Sanskrit), daeva (Avestan Old Iranian) and div (Middle and Modern Persian) are commonly considered to be variations of the same word, div being the more modern (Middle Persian) word. While the different words may at times be applied in a similar fashion, there are times when they have different connotations.]
The devas are the gods of the Hindu scriptures.
The earliest of the Hindu scriptures, the Rig Veda provides us with information about pre-Zoroastrian Vedic-Aryan deva worship.
Daeva and Div
The daeva and div in the Avesta and other Persian texts, are evil qualities, personification of evil qualities and demons. The terms ‘demon’, evil person and ‘negative value’ (or ‘base quality’) are freely interchangeable in the Zoroastrian concept of the daeva or div (as mentioned earlier, div is the later version of the Avestan word daeva).
The demonization of the Rig Vedic deva, primarily Indra, in the Avesta, the naming of a book of the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta as the Vi-daevo-data (modern name: Vendidad) meaning the law against the daeva, as well as the name of the religion preached by Zarathushtra: Mazdayasno Zarathushtrish Vidaevo Ahura-Tkaesho, that is, Zarathushtrian Mazda-Worship opposed to the daeva through the laws of the Lord (Ahura), together signify the strong opposition of the Mazda worshippers to the daeva and the defining of Zoroastrian Mazda worship through it opposition to the daeva.
Not all the daeva in Zoroastrian and Persian texts are the devas mentioned in the Vedas. The Mazda worshippers began to use the word daeva generically to mean all demonic forces of evil. The word daeva and div came to include the personification of vices, other Aryan gods who were not part of the Vedic pantheon, as well as the gods of non-Aryan peoples.
In the chapter 32 of the Gathas, Zarathushtra speaks about the daeva, evil and the lie, a concept he introduces in Y.30.6. In Yasna 32.3 Zarathushtra states:
“At yush deava vispaongha
akat manangho sta chithrem.”
But all you daeva
Are the progeny of wicked thoughts (thinking).
The manner in which Zarathushtra refers to the daeva is ambiguous. Zarathushtra refers to the daeva as a group who collectively chose evil. He does not name the daeva in his hymns. However, some of the negative qualities he speaks about – such as aeshma, wrath, and achistem mano, evil mind,(Y.30.6) became named as daeva elsewhere in the Avesta.
In the Avesta’s Aban (Avan) Yasht (5.94), we read of the Daevayasni, the daeva worshippers. In the Vendidad’s chapter 19, the Daevayasni are juxtaposed against the Mazdayasni.
Further, a book of the Avesta, is Vi-daevo-data (the Vendidad), meaning the law against the daeva, mentions (in verses 10.9 and 19.43) Indra, a Rig Vedic deva (see below), by name. Verses 10.9 to 10.16 mention additional daeva: Sauru, Naunghaithya, Tauru, Zairi, Aeshma, Akatasha, Zaurva, Buiti, Driwi, Daiwi, Kasvi, Paitisha, the daeva of Varenya (Varena) and the daeva of Mazana, presumed to be a nation (not mentioned in Vendidad’s list of sixteen nations) – modern Mazandaran. Daeva mentioned elsewhere in the Vendidad are Akem-Mano / Aka-Manah (evil mind) (19.4),
Of the daeva listed in the Vendidad, only Indra has a direct Vedic equivalent. Sauru is thought to be the Vedic Sarva (sometimes used in the Vedas as a name of Shiva). Similarly, Naunghaithya is thought to be the Vedic Nasatya. In the Vendidad, Indra operates under the auspices of angra mainyu, the evil spirit (in later texts, the embodiment of angra mainyu is Ahriman, the devil incarnate).
|The Rig-Vedic deva, Indra,
riding his elephant, Airavata
Indra is a principle deva in the Rig Veda where he has more verses addressed to him than any other deva. In the image to the right, Indra is seen riding his elephant Airavata. Unlike the invisible, non-anthropomorphic, genderless, non-iconic Mazda, the devas are represented and worshipped as idols or graven images.
Indra’s arch foe was the asura Vrita who was “manifested by the father of a youth killed by Indra. The young man had three heads, one for studying, one for eating, and one for watching. Indra was extremely jealous of the peaceful, studious youth. Finally, Indra was so enraged that he hurled a thunderbolt at him and cut of his heads.” (p. 502, Dictionary of Ancient Deities by Patricia Turner, Charles Russell Coulter). Vrita emerged from the slain youth’s body and was granted invincibility during night and day, to materials wet or dry, on land and on water.
Thereafter, in encounters between Indra and Vrita, Vrita was either victorious or succeeded in frustrating Indra’s exploits, until that is, Indra was aided by Vishnu as the trickster (also see below). On Vishnu’s advice Indra feigned a friendship and made a truce with Vrita. Then, after many years, Vishnu and Indra discovered the means to penetrate Vrita’s invisibility. One day, while they were walking on a seashore at twilight – a time that was neither day nor night – the wily Vishnu gathered the froth of the ocean – which was neither wet nor dry – and threw it at Vrita standing at water’s edge – a spot that was neither land nor water – engulfing and choking the asura.
We read into the myth, core values of the deva and asura worshippers, as well as the methods the deva-worshippers employed in order to co-exist for generations with the dominant asura-worshippers: bidding their time while plotting to gain power through subterfuge.
Div as Evil People
In Ferdowsi’s epic, the kingdom of King Gaya Maretan was attacked by divs led by Ahriman’s son – a battle that is discussed further below.
Div as Vices
The Shahnameh goes on to list in its pages nine principle vices called divs:
- Az – greed
- Niaz – desire
- Khashm – wrath
- Rashk – envy
- Nang – dishonour
- Kin – vengeance
- Nammaam – tell-tale
- Do-ruy – two-faced
- Napak-din – heretic
These divs and vices closely parallel the daeva characteristics – the demonic personification of vices – mentioned in the Avesta. The vices are considered evil by Zoroastrians and the antithesis of the virtues of an ashavan.
Nature of the Div (Evil)
Book 3 of the Denkard (a Middle Persian non-scriptural text) gives us interesting observations into the perceived nature of the div: Evil has no creative powers. If we extrapolate the statement we are led to the concept that Mazda, God, is creative [Dk 3.40: “The Self-existent is One, and God alone has created”], constructive and pure (cf. Pak Yazdan, a Pure Divinity) while the div is the dualistic antithesis – it is destructive and polluting. Therefore demonic forces cannot create. They can only pollute and contaminate, and thereby cause evil or transform something good to evil – like a drop of poison contaminating pure water and thereby transforming it from something life-giving to something deathly. When entities through an act of choice, choose evil and set about their acts of deception or destruction, they become that element of evil [Dk. 3.144 “Because of wisdom (i.e. choice) that a person is a doer of good or evil deeds”. Also see Dk 3.33.]. The consequence is that since divs can only destroy, they will ultimately destroy themselves – that is the promise of Zoroastrian eschatology. However, the good must participate to bring about and facilitate that eventuality.
Other Denkard passages and Middle Persian texts question whether Ahriman and the divs exist at all. Perhaps referring to Chapter 30 of the Gathas, they postulate that existence or being is a result of the creative process from which life and goodness emerged. The evil mind (akem-mano / aka-manah), other aspects of evil, and the personification of evil, are progressions of being or existence’s dual aspect – the aspect of not-being or anti-existence. The symbolic analogy here is that darkness is not an independent entity. It is the absence of light – it is not-light. Darkness is banished instantly when light emerges [Dk 3.142: Where there is much shining of light, there is permanence of light and disappearance of darkness]. The banishment of darkness is enduring if the light is enduring as with an ever-burning flame. Yet a flame is fragile. It is extinguished not by darkness, but by the lack of attention by those who must nurture it and fed it pure foods as a mind is fed the food of good thoughts and the body, good deeds. It follows that Ahriman and the divs cannot exist independently, but manifest themselves in the absence of goodness. Therefore evil would cease to be manifest if goodness were all pervasive – an ultimate goal towards which Zoroastrians dedicate themselves. Once again, the good must play an active part for without the spread of light, without the maintenance of an ever-burning flame, the darkness of evil cannot be banished. [cf. Dk 3.27, 33, 34, 40, 50, 130, 132, 142.]
3. Asura Worship
The Rig Veda or other Hindu religious texts do not directly mention Mazda worship or Mazda worshippers. Rather, they mention a set of deities who carry the title asura.
The word asura is the Vedic equivalent of the Avestan ahura. Avestan words can frequently be changed to their Sanskrit equivalent by replacing h with s. Ahura is in turn said to be derived from the word ahu, meaning lord. As with the English word ‘lord’, ahu is a descriptive title for both a human lord (e.g. a feudal lord or landlord) and a divine lord. In the Avesta, God or Mazda, is sometimes addressed as Ahura (Lord) and sometimes as Ahura Mazda (Lord God). The use of the words in this manner can also be found in the Judeo-Christian Bible.
It is pertinent to note that in the older Veda, the Rig Veda, the term asura or lord is used (as in the Avesta) for individual gods and for people – but never for a group of gods. In other words, asura does not define a class of gods. Rather it is a title. In these older Vedic texts, the term deva, however, is used for both individual gods and the group of devas (visve devah). In other words, deva is used both as a title – a superior god – and as the name for the group of gods. Some gods with the title asura are also referred to as devas. This nomenclature changes in the later Vedic texts, where the word asura is used as a title and as the name of a group of gods, gods who had evolved into demons.
There is a considerable difference in the way asuras are treated in the older and younger Vedic texts and the difference may help us understand the manner in which the Aryan religions, and the relationship between them, evolved.
In the earlier Vedas, the devas and asuras are said to have been born of a common parent, but the asuras were the older (purva-deva) and stronger siblings – powerful and beneficent gods who merited equal if not greater respect than the devas.
In the later Vedic texts starting with the Atharva Veda, the asuras are referred to in the plural, that is as a group of deities. It is also in these later texts that the asuras are depicted as being opposed to the devas. In conflicts between the two, the asuras were invariably victorious. The devas were victorious when they used a ruse or received the help of a benefactor trickster such as Vishnu.
In the post Vedic texts such as the Bhagavad-Gita, Puranas and Itihasas, the asuras are transformed and treated as a group of demons who possess the vices of pride, arrogance, conceit, anger, harshness, and ignorance (Gita 16.4). In the Brahmana texts, the asuras are hostile and opposed to the devas with whom they are in constant conflict.
However, no individual god who carries the title asura in the Rig Veda ever appears as an inimical adversary of the deva gods in the later Hindu religious texts, and none of the gods who bore the title asura in the older Rig Veda are mentioned in these later texts. In other words, the asuras of the earlier texts are not to be considered as demons. In one later text, the Upanishad, the new character of the asuras are accompanied with a new word, sura, meaning god, thereby implying that asura meant a-sura or a not-god.
It stands to reason that the change in the way the asuras were perceived by the deva worshippers closely parallels the changes in the relations between the asura and deva worshippers. There is an acknowledgement that the asura worship preceded deva worship and that in the early years, the asura worshippers were the dominant group.
A name that appears to be common to both the Avesta and Vedas is the Vedic asura Mitra (also see below) and the Avestan Mithra. In the Vedas, Mitra is often addressed together with the asura Varuna.
While the Vedas tend to anthropomorphize all its deities, it is probable that the asuras, Varuna, Mithra and Agni were originally invisible, non-anthropomorphic, genderless, non-iconic deities (cf. the attributes of Mazda) who may have been worshipped together as Asura worship or exclusively as Mazda worship.
Asura in Early Vedic Religion, Hale, Wash Edward (1986), Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass
Review – Asura in Early Vedic Religion, Journal of the American Oriental Society, The, Oct-Dec, 1993 by Stanley Insler.
Differences Between Deva & Asura Worship
In his book, The Hymns of Atharvan Zarathushtra, Jatindra Mohan Chatterji calls the Rig Vedic devas the seen gods, and asuras the unseen gods. In other words the devas like Indra were anthropomorphic and capable of representation as idols, while the asuras like Mitra were, for the main part, non-anthropomorphic and formless.
In the Rig Veda, the devas preside over natural phenomena and the exercise of power and might while the asuras preside over the establishment of a moral and social order. For instance, the deva Indra is guardian of the weather and victory in battle earning the title sahasra-mushka, ‘the one with a thousand testicles’ (Rig Veda 6.45.3), while the asuras Varuna and Mitra are the guardians of the cosmic and moral laws of rita (cf. asha).
In the Rig Veda (4.42.1-6), when Varuna declares, “I, Varuna, am the king; first for me were appointed the dignities of asura, the Lord. I let the dripping waters rise up, and through rta I uphold the sky.” Indra replies, “Men who ride swiftly, having good horses, call on me when surrounded in battle. I, the bountiful Indra, provoke strife. I whirl up the dust, my strength is overwhelming… . No godlike power can check me – I who am unassailable. When draughts of Soma, when songs have made me frenzied, then both the unbounded regions are filled with fear.” The hymns addressed to Varuna are more ethical and devout in tone than the others, and form the most noble or high-minded portion of the Rig Veda.
If the qualities of the gods reflect the values of the worshippers, then for asura worshippers building and maintaining a peaceful society based on law and order was a priority. For the deva worshippers, the priority would have been the exercise of power through might and fear. The asuras are ethical where the devas are materialistic. While in the Rig Veda both deities and their respective allies are worshipped, Indra and deva worship clearly take precedence. The largest number of Rig Vedic hymns are dedicated to Indra – nearly 250 out of a total of 1028. Agni, an asura, is invoked in about 200 hymns, a greater number than the number of hymns dedicated to Varuna.
In Buddhism, the asuras are seen as lesser deities who are never satisfied and who continuously strive to better themselves. Zoroastrianism sees continuously striving for improvement towards excellence as a fundamental purpose of life.
The characteristics assigned to the devas and asuras reflected what beliefs the rulers and their supporting priests wished to promote in society. The ideal of continuously striving to improve oneself could have promoted ambition amongst the common people, while some rulers and priests may have thought it more desirable to promote satisfaction or resignation to one’s lot in life – a life that had been divinely ordained. Rulers and priests so inclined would have promoted deva worship that included the caste system rather than asura worship that saw working to better oneself as a virtue and not a sin.
As in our example above, the differences between what the devas and asuras represented became differences in core beliefs, values, the nature of human beings, and the organization of society. These differences appear to have become strong enough to produce a deep societal divide – a schism – with the deva worshippers on one side, and the asura and Mazda worshippers on the other side. The Mazda worshippers were the Iranian-Aryans, The deva worshippers are generally thought of as being Indian-Aryans though they could have been any of the non-Iranian groups.
Incorporation of Pre-Zoroastrian Asuras into Mazda Worship & Zoroastrianism
Some of the asuras such as Mitra, are included in the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta, as angels (fereshtes or yazatas) and guardians or lords (ahuras/asuras) of core Zoroastrian values and ideals.
In the Avesta, the names of the yazatas are also names for core values and ideals. For instance, as an angel in the Avesta, Mithra is the guardian of the values and qualities associated with friendship. In day-to-day language, Mithra means a friend, the ideals of loyal, trustworthy, caring and kind friendship and the qualities of kindness, helpfulness and benevolence. As a core value Mithra is the value of keeping of promises.
We do not know if the incorporation of asura worship into Mazda worship took place before, during or after Zarathushtra’s time. In the hymns of Zarathushtra, the Gathas, Zarathushtra does not accommodate or incorporate the asuras in the manner that we see elsewhere in the Avesta. Indeed, depending on the interpretation of the Gathas being read, Zarathushtra can be seen as preaching an uncompromising monotheism. Regardless of the interpretations that abound, the Avesta taken as a whole together with Middle Persian literature and Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh provide the full spectrum of belief and a consistent ethic. The texts are a repository of a rich heritage consisting of some of the earliest literature and history known to humankind – a history interwoven with the references to the asuras and daevas.
Appendix: Hindu Religious Texts
1. The Rig Veda contains hymns (mantras) about the mythology and ancient Vedic practice
(At Wikipedia: Description, Translations, also Mandalas. At Sacred Texts: Sanskrit, English.);
2. The Sama Veda consists mainly of Rig Vedic mantras, arranged in the order required to perform the Soma ritual. (At Sacred Texts);
3. The Yajur Veda contains instructions for the soma rituals in prose (at Sacred Texts); and
4. The Atharva Veda consists of spells against enemies, sorcerers, diseases and mistakes made during the sacrificial ritual. It also outlines royal duties and expounds on spiritual matters. (At Sacred Texts)
Each of the four Vedas are divided into two sections:
1. The Samhita or mantras, hymns, and
2. The Brahmanas – commentaries, interpretation and instructions for the the rituals.
The Brahmanas are further sub-divided into two sections;
1. The Aranyakas, description of especially dangerous rituals such as the Mahavrata and Pravargya, and
2. The Upanishads (see below)
The Upanishad , meaning sitting near (the teacher), are philosophical and metaphysical writings about the relationship between the soul and Brahman. Collectively, the Upanishads are called the Vedanta, the end of the Veda, because they appear at the end of each Veda, and because they are considered the culmination of Vedic knowledge.
Notes on the Vedas
The predominant deities of the Vedas, headed by Indra, are different from those in later, post-Vedic Hinduism. The central story of the Vedas is Indra’s battle and eventual killing of the asura Vrita. The ritual focus is that of the yajna (cf. Avestan yasna) – the act of worship. The spiritual focus is in joining ancestral souls in the Vedic equivalent of heaven. The concept of reincarnation would enter Hinduism in the post-Vedic period. Reincarnation is not an native Aryan concept. The doctrinal focus is the purva or original mimamsa – inquiry or investigation.
Post Vedic Scriptures
1. Itihasas (epics like the Ramayana, Mahabharata). The heroes of the epics are avatars, incarnation of God, Vishnu, as human being: Rama, in the Ramayana, and Krishna, in the Mahabharata. Unlike the gods of the Vedas and the mystic all-pervading and formless Brahman in the Brahmanas, the avatars are developed loving and righteous personalities (Sacred Texts: Ramayana) ;
2. Puranas (mythology),
3. Agamas (theological treatises)
3. Darshanas (philosophical texts), and
5. Dharmashastras (law books)
Also known as the Gita, the Bhagavad Gita (meaning the song of God) is a section of the Mahabharata where Krishna exhorts the devotee to abandon the mortal self and give oneself to the infinite love of God. By loving God a person loves the immortal self, and thereby finds harmony and peace with the universe.
The Puranas consist of narratives ranging from the history of the universe from creation to destruction, cosmology, philosophy, geography, genealogies and myths of kings, heroes, sages, and demigods. Some individual Puranas feature a particular deity and their exploits such as Durga-Devi and her killing of Mahish-Asura. The Puranas are usually written in the form of stories told by one person to another.
Notes on the Post-Vedic Scriptures
In the post-Vedic scriptures, the focus of veneration of Indra in the Rig Veda, is replaced by the worship of Vishnu, Shiva and (Durga) Devi. Although Vishnu was a Vedic deity, he rises to pre-eminence in the post-Vedic scriptures. The Vedic yajna is replaced by a different religious ritual called the puja. The ritualistic purva mimamsa is replaced by the speculative philosophies of Vedanta also called the uttar, or later, mimamsa.
References to Asuras – Chronological Order in Vedic texts
Rig Veda books I, VIII, X; Atharva Veda; Sama Veda, Rig Veda Khilas (supplementary chapters) and the mantras of the Yajur Veda; Brahmanas.
Evolution of Aryan Worship
In reading the different Zoroastrian and Hindu texts, we are left with the impression that the three different Aryan religions as well as the relationship between them, evolved significantly over time. They could have looked very different at different points in history and also in different locations. The relationship between them also changed from one of coexistence to irrevocable separation.
The communities in which the religions were practiced could have been exclusivist or pluralistic communities. Rulers of exclusivist communities could be expected to acknowledge a single religion or even a single deity within the deva or asura pantheon. Rulers of pluralistic communities could be expected to be more ecumenical.
At times the three religious groups coexisted while at other times they competed violently.
An example of a pluralistic, ecumenical accommodation of the asuras and devas by specific communities is a c. 1400 BCE peace treaty with the Hittites, the rulers of the Hurrian kingdom of Mitanni invoked the asuras Varuna and Mitra, as well as the devas Indra and the Nasatyas. Mitanni was located southwest of Lake Van, in an area that is part of Southern Turkey and Northern Syria today.
In the Rig Veda, we read that the initial relationship between the asuras and deva was one of coexistence. This relationship would gradually change to one of competition. Nevertheless, some asuras such as Agni(fire) are invited by the deva chief Indra to becomes devas (Rig Veda 10.124) and Agni is sometimes referred to as a deva. In verse 5, Varuna, a principle asura, is also invited by Indra to become a deva.
Cooperation between the asuras and devas is not relegated to the earlier Hindu scriptures, the Rig Veda. Stories of their cooperation can be found in the later Puranas, such as the story of Mount Mandara. However, their cooperation is short-lived. In the story, a catastrophic flood befalls the earth submerging the treasured possessions of the devas and asuras including the elixir of immortality, Amrita (cf. Avestan Amertat, immortality). The peak of the lofty Mount Meru rose above the flood and this is where the gods gathered and caucused on how to retrieve the Amrita. They agreed to a plan proposed by the deva Vishnu. Together, they uprooted the mountain Mandara and placed it on the back of Kurma, the tortoise. The gods then coiled the world serpent Vasuki around the mountain like a rope with the asuras holding one end of the snake and the devas the other end. By coordinating their actions, they used the snake coiled around the mountain to rotate the mountain and thereby churn the cosmic ocean formed by the flood. As the waters churned, the ocean turned to milk and then to butter, revealing the lost elixir of immortality and other treasures. The cooperation soon ended. According to the Bhagavata-Purana, as soon as the Amrita was produced, the devas took possession of it, and broke their promise to the asuras to give them half. As a consequence, the asuras then tried to steal it from the devas. A struggle ensued which the asuras lost and the devas consumed the nectar of immortality all by themselves.
|Devas and Asuras using the world serpent Vasuki and Mount Mandara to churn the cosmic ocean|
The story marks the end of cooperation between the devas and asuras and the start of a deep and irreconcilable schism between them. Their relationship had deteriorated to the point that they were henceforth bent on mutual destruction.
Schism Between Mazda-Asura and Deva Worshippers
The story of the differences between the asuras and devas were of course a reflection of the differences and the violent conflict between the deva and asura worshippers. While, as we have mentioned, the Hindu scriptures do not directly refer to Mazda worshippers, the Zoroastrian and Persian texts talk about the conflict as one between the deva and Mazda worshippers. We will therefore refer to the conflict as between the deva and asura-Mazda worshippers.
Primordial Battles Between Mazda & Deva Worshippers
According to the poet Ferdowsi’s epic, the Shahnameh, at the dawn of history the Mazda worshippers and the deva worshippers fought two primordial battles. The battles took place during the reign of the first Aryan king, Gaya Maretan (a name later shortened first to Gayo-Mard and then Kayomars in the Shahnameh). The first battle started when the deva worshippers led by Ahriman, attacked Gaya Maretan’s Mazda worshippers. During the battle, Ahriman’s son killed Gaya Maretan’s son Siyamak, and the first battle resulted in the defeat of Gaya Maretan’s army by Ahriman’s hordes. However, retribution was to follow. After a bitter period of mourning, Gaya Maretan assembled a large army led by his grandson Hushang. The Mazda worshippers then attacked and defeated the deva worshippers in a second battle, a defeat that resulted in a subjugation of the deva worshippers by the Mazda worshippers.
|Hushang slays a div – a scene from the Shahnameh|
These initial battles were to characterize the relationship between the deva and Mazda worshippers in subsequent millennia. Periodically, one group would win dominance over the other. Nevertheless, until, their separation into the nations of Iran and India, they did coexist, possibly within a community or in adjacent communities.
The War of Religion
If Gaya Maretan and his successors had asserted the dominance of Mazda worshippers over the deva worshippers, that state of affairs would change over time, and the deva worshippers would turn the table and gradually assert their dominance.
This change in dominance is recorded in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. The Shahnameh’s chapter on King Vishtasp and Zarathushtra opens with the following lines which we have adapted from James Atkinson’s translation of the Shahnameh:
I’ve said preceding sovereigns worshipped God (Mazda)
By whom their crowns were given
To protect the people from oppressors.
God they served, acknowledging God’s goodness –
For to God, the pure, unchangeable, the Holy One!
They owed their greatness and their earthly power.
But after times,
Worship of God gave way to idolatry and pagan faith,
And then Mazda’s name was lost
In adoration of created things.
At the time of Zarathushtra’s birth, Mazda worship had lost ground to deva worship, as had the virtues of honesty and not causing harm to others. A young Zarathushtra, disgusted with the dishonesty, violence, greed and lawlessness that surrounded him, resolved to dedicate his life to changing this state of affairs. He preached establishing an ethical order based on the old Mazdayasni faith – one that would come to be known as the Mazdayasni Ahura-Tkaesha.
The first royal patron of Zarathushtra’s religion was King Vishtasp. Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh tells us that King Vishtasp was king of Balkh, which at that time had become a tributary state of Turan (Sugd). For a map that shows the location of these states, see Aryan Homeland page.
When King Vishtasp adopted the Zoroastrian Mazdayasni faith, he also decided to stop paying tribute to King Arjasp of Turan, whereupon Arjasp gave Vishtasp an ultimatum to resume paying tribute and forsake his adopted faith, or face a devastating invasion (cf. Warner & Atkinson translations of the Shahnameh):
“Abandon your ill course,
Be awed before the God of Paradise,
Put far from you that aging miscreant,
And hold a feast according to our customs… .
“If not, in a month or two,
I will enter your kingdom with fire and sword,
And destroy your authority and you.
I give you good advice:
Do not be influenced by a wicked counsellor,
But return to your former religious practices.
Weigh well, therefore, what I say.”
Vishtasp rejected the ultimatum and what followed was the War of Religion (cf. Greater Bundahishn 9.36and Lesser Bundahishn 12.36) in which Vishtasp was apparantly victorious (also see the last para of this section).
The conflict and Vishtasp’s victory could have resulted in the deva worshippers living in his Central Asian kingdom, leaving or being pushed south through the Hindu Kush mountain passes into the upper Indus valley (today’s Pakistan). It is possible that the Indus valley had previously been populated by deva worshippers, and that those from Central Asia migrated to join their co-religionists. The Hindu Kush (meaning Hindu Killer) would from that point, have formed a border between the Zoroastrian Mazda worshippers and the deva worshippers.
The Indus Valley was called Hindu (later Hind or Ind) in the Avesta. The locals called the region Sindhu and then Sind. Replacing ‘h’ with ‘s’ is a common way of transforming many Avestan words to Sanskrit. The Persians eventually called the people of the region Hindi, a name that would in western parlance become Indie (India). Indians, however, refer to their country as Bharat. In addition, the name for the religion of the deva worshippers, Hindu, is also derived from the Avestan / Iranian / Persian names for the Indus region. Hindu is not a name for their religion used by the ancient Hindus. Hindus refer to their religion by various names such as Sanatana Dharma, meaning eternal law in Sanskrit, or the Vaideeha Dharma.
However, the Greater Bundahishn also records in 9.36, “In the War of Religion, when defeat was with the Iranians,… .” Such a defeat could have pushed the Iranian out of their Central Asian homeland westward. The Lesser Bundahishn in 12.32-33 states, “32. From the same Padashkh-Vargar mountain unto Mount Kumish, which they call Mount Madofryad (‘Come-to-help’) — that in which Vishtasp routed Arjasp — is Mount Miyan-i-Dast (‘mid-plain’), and was broken off from that mountain there. 33. They say, in the War of the Religion, when there was confusion among the Iranians it broke off from that mountain, and slid down into the middle of the plain; the Iranians were saved by it, and it was called ‘Come-to-help’ by them.”
Asura Deva Conflict in the Hindu Scriptures
The perpetual war between the asuras and devas form some of the central themes in the later Hindu texts. This might signify that at the time when these texts were written, the relationship between the Aryan asura and deva worshippers had deteriorated to such an extent that they engaged in continuous internecine conflict.
The perpetual conflict between the devas and asura described in the Hindu texts found its way into Buddhist literature as well. In Pali Theravada Buddhist literature, the most frequent references to asuras are in connection with the continual war between asuras and devas. Similarly, in Mahayana Buddhist literature the asuras, motivated by envy of the devas, are constantly at war with them. [111: 21-6].
Mahish-Asura & Durga-Devi
|Durga-devi killing Mahish-asura in the form of a buffalo|
An example of the transformation in relations between the deva and asura worshippers in Hindu scriptures from a grudging acknowledgement of the onetime supremacy of the Mazda / asura worshippers to violent conflict, is the Hindu myth of the battle between female deva, Durga-devi and the asura, Mahish-asura (see image to the right) in chapters 81 to 93 in the Markandeya Purana.
[The Vedic name Mahish-asura may have an Avestan equivalence in mazishta-ahura i.e. the greatest ahura/asura. Mahish-asura could transform himself into a buffalo and the scenes of Durga killing Mahish-asura sometimes depicts Durga killing a buffalo, a scene reminiscent of Mitra killing the bull in Roman mithraeums. (Curiously, Mithra in Iranian tradition is the name of a woman.) Durga carries the title Mahish-asura-mardini, mardini meaning a killer of the feminine gender.]
According to the myth, Mahish-asura was pious and worshipped Brahma, the supreme deity among the devas and asuras. As a reward, Brahma granted Mahish-asura supremacy and omnipotence over all deities and humans – no man or male deity would be able to defeat him or kill him. Mahish-asura used his omnipotence over males to defeat Indra, the king of the devas, and take control of Swarga Loka, Indra’s realm in the upper mountainous regions, and Prithvi Loka, the lower regions. In doing so, Mahish-asura drove Indra and all the other devas (in other words, the deva worshippers and temples housing the devas) out of Swarga Loka.
This description of Mahish-asura as an omnipotent god, a god who was supreme over both devas and asuras, is a description shared only by the Rig Vedic asura Varuna who is designated in the Rig Veda as the asura who is king of everyone, both gods and mortals (RV II.27.10). “This asura rules over the gods,” is a further statement of omnipotence in Atharva Veda I.10.1. No other Vedic god is described in this manner. Asura Varuna is often thought to be the Vedic equivalent of the Avestan Ahura Mazda.
Swarga Loka, is the mountainous kingdom where Mount Meru stands. Mount Meru and its companion mountains are the hub from which the Himalayas stem (a possible description of the Pamirs). Bharatavarsha, Ancient India, lay to the south of the Himalayas. The Vedic description of Mount Meru is similar to the Zoroastrian description of Airyana Vaeja’s Mount Hara (also see Aryan Homeland Location page).
After an eon-long lament by the expelled devas, Brahma created Durga, a female deity who avenged the devas by killing Mahish-asura whose omnipotence did not extend to females. The killing of Mahish-asura and the defeat of his armies enabled the devas to return to Swarga and Prithvi Loka.
|The Deva and Mahish-asura armies meet in battle
Berkley Art Museum Artist unknown. Karnataka, India
1830-1845 CE. Ink, gouache, and gold on paper
There are indications in the myth, that while Mahish-asura was in the beginning allied to other asuras, Mahish-asura eventually drove these asuras out of Swarga Loka as well. (This could mean that Mahish-asura was worshipped not just as a supreme God, but as an only God as well.) When the devas prepared to invade and retake Swarga and Prithvi Loka, the other asuras assisted Durga by providing her with weapons.
The myth has embedded in it, the common roots and the schism between the Aryan religious groups: the deva, asura and Mazda worshippers. It may also contain history. For instance, at the outset there are the common roots, shared history and co-existence among the groups. Next, there is the rise to dominance of the Mazda worshippers who drove the deva worshippers out of the upper and lower regions of the Aryan homeland. Later, the Mazda worshippers drove out the asura worshippers as well. Eventually, however, the deva worshippers, assisted by the asura worshippers, assembled a strong army and drove the Mazda worshippers out of Airyana Vaeja. The war of religion between the two groups may have therefore taken place in two stages, the second stage ending in the Mazda worshippers being driven out of their traditional lands. The Bundahishn 12.33 states that “They say, in the war of the religion, there was confusion among the Iranians… .”
There is a inexplicable gap in Zoroastrian history this myth might help to fill. The gap occurs after the closing of the Avestan canon and the start of Median and Persian history (c. 800 BCE). Some reason or event caused the Zoroastrians to migrate westward out of the upper Aryan lands.
The story is an example of how the schism between the two groups became part of Hindu scripture. Similarly, an entire book of the Avesta, the Vendidad, derives its name from Vi-dev-data, the law against the devas, that is, the law against evil.
Post Separation Relations
Once the two groups of Aryans had separated, the deva worshippers migrating south across the Hindu Kush mountains into the upper Indus valley, the relationship between the deva and Mazda worshippers appears to have oscillated between peaceful neighbourliness and conflict. However, when conflict did arise, it was more in the nature of kings and ruling groups seeking power (sometimes perhaps at the behest of religious advisors) than animosity between between two peoples.
To this day, the two peoples, the Zoroastrians and Hindus, intuitively feel a certain historic kinship. When the Zoroastrians were driven out of their Iranian homeland by the Arabs, it is the Hindus of India who gave the Zoroastrians a home, and the two groups have coexisted peacefully in India for over a thousand years, each honouring the other’s freedom to maintain their religious beliefs.
Zoroastrians owe a debt of gratitude to their Hindu cousins for having opened the doors of their land for Zoroastrians to enter not just as guests but as members of a family. Even the Zoroastrians who remained behind in Iran benefited from Indian hospitality since the Zoroastrians (the Parsees) who prospered in India were able to provide support and advocate on behalf of their Iranian brethren who were discriminated against and persecuted in the land of their ancestors.
It is on this note: the completion of a full cycle of relations between the Aryan religious groups, that we end this chapter on Aryan heritage – a heritage that started and ended in coexistence and cooperation.
Western views on Aryans
Philology and Linguistics
Philology is the systematic study of the development and history of languages. Linguistics is the the study of the structure and development of a language and its relationship to other languages. Both philology and linguistics have been used to date works, construct the history of peoples, and to determine the so-called ‘racial’ connections between peoples.
Attempts to Unlock the Mysteries of the Zoroastrian Texts
The Zoroastrian scriptures and commentaries, the Avesta and Zand respectively, had faithfully been preserved by priests and the laity memorizing the passages in the original languages. Nevertheless, by the 1700s, knowledge of the older languages of the Avesta, had largely been lost. What remained were the memorized texts and rough translations of previous translations. These translations were influenced by the opinions of their day.
Around the time when western travellers and authors such as Anquetil du Perron (1731-1805) came across handwritten manuscripts of the Avesta, philology and linguistics had begun to emerge as disciplines. Western scholars enthusiastically began to reconstruct and retranslate the texts – a process that produced much debate and dissention. While considerable progress was made in uncovering the meaning of the Avestan texts, there is still considerable disagreement about the meaning of many Avestan words and passages. We may never recover the true meaning and wisdom of the older and more obscure passages.
On the one hand the technique of using knowledge of Sanskrit to understand the Avestan languages is clearly valid and has proved very valuable. On the other hand, however, the racial constructs employed by some philologists are full of bias and conjecture, and have resulted in great harm. These individuals, hungry to find some historical proof that European Christians were not Semites, but a separate and superior race, and that Christianity was not based on Semitic roots – appropriated the culture and history of the people of the Avesta, the Aryans, for their own ends. They have used the power of the written word and the credibility of scholarship to create the illusion of fact out of fiction.
Are the Aryans a Racial or National Group?
When western philologists published their conclusions about the Aryans of the Avesta and Rig Veda (the earliest Hindu scriptures), together with their racial constructs, they fed a speculative frenzy about the Aryan peoples – much of it based on the desire of some Europeans to claim superiority over non-Europeans who were thus worthy of colonization and subjugation, or by Christians to claim racial separation from the Jews and other Semites.
The racialization of the term Aryans, that is defining the word to mean a “race” of people and more specifically the “race” of so-called white-skinned people, otherwise erroneously known as Caucasians, has its roots in a construct by German anthropologist Christoph Meiners as outlined in his The Outline of History of Mankind (1785). The concept of “race” in his context does not just mean ethnicity or physical characteristics, but defines mental abilities, moral characteristics and superiority over other human beings. Meiners racialized human beings and then assigned them into races: Caucasians of whom the most racially pure were the “venerated… ancient Germans” and “Mongolians” who consisted of everyone else. He considered some Europeans to be impure “dirty whites”. Meiners excluded Jews from the Caucasian race and ascribed to them instead a “permanently degenerate nature”. Meiners claimed that Blacks (Negroes) felt less pain and lacked emotions since they had thick nerves; they had “no human (and) barely any animal feeling. In his book, he relates a story where a Black man, half way through the burning alive asked to smoke a pipe and smoked it like nothing was happening while he continued to burn. Blacks also had perverted sex drives according to Meiners while Whites had it just right.
In his 1853 Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, French aristocrat Arthur de Gobineau (1816-82) further postulated that the “White” race represented a superior branch of humanity and that “Black”, “White”, and “Yellow” skins were natural barriers between the “races”, a position he claimed was supported by the Bible. He believed that “race-mixing” violates those natural barriers and leads to chaos.
The racialization of people is the bedrock of racism.
Racialization, Philology & Max Müller
The racist speculations of Meiners and Gobineau were further justified by the so-called “science” some saw in the theories of philologists and linguists such as Max Müller (see note below*) – a theory that if languages were remotely connected by the presence of some words that are similar, then the people must have been connected “racially” in the distant past. A tool that had some credibility in establishing a connection between the peoples of the Avesta and Rig Veda was stretched to the limits of incredulity. The Aryans of the Vedas and the Avesta provided these individuals with a convenient group with whom to claim a racial connection leading to the racialization of the term “Aryans”. Meiners’ so-called Caucasians now had an additional racialized label, Aryans.
Caucasians & Aryans
Caucasians by definition have their origins in the Caucasus mountain region just west of the Southern Caspian Sea, a handy launching point for a mythical migration of Aryans to Europe. Essential to the maintenance of this construct was the elaborate justification that the Aryans of the Avesta and Vedas also originated in the Caucasus Mountains. Central Asia did not appear to suit their purpose. Some who fancied this notion but who were not satisfied that the Aryans had migrated to Europe from Asia, claimed that the Aryans were native to Germany and that one branch had migrated the other way, that is, from Europe to Asia.
It is quite amazing how an entirely bogus concept based on a fallacy – that blue-eyed, blond haired Europeans have their origin in the Caucasus mountain region – is still currently used as a demographic and racial term, Caucasians (as is the use of the term “Indians” for aboriginal North Americans).
Language & Race
The weakness of Max Müller’s hypothesis of an automatic connection between language and so-called “race” can be seen today in observing that most of the people who speak English have no racial connection – they have linguistic hegemony but anthropological (racial) diversity. Language connections can be spread by conquest, the imposition of a language (and religion) by conquerors, and through commerce – as well as other possibilities.
There are additional considerations. People who migrate do not necessarily maintain their language over successive generations especially when they are in the minority. The Zoroastrians of Iran who migrated to India, soon adopted the language of the province in which they lived and over generations forgot their native tongue. Nevertheless, they maintained a measure of ethnic/racial (sic) separation from the host population even though they spoke the same language.
A significant number of Arabic words found their way into Zoroastrian religious lexicon and there is no claim anywhere that this points to a racial connection. The reason uniformly given is that this incursion of Arabic words into the Zoroastrian lexicon resulted in the years after the Arab conquest of Iran.
Appropriation of a Heritage & Indignity
One artificial construct regarding the Aryans has led to another and the facts have been skewed to fit this bias. At one extreme, Aryans had to have specific physical characteristics such as blonde hair and blue eyes – characteristics that would have excluded most, if not all, the original Aryans – a final indignity of the expropriation of their heritage.
There is no evidence whatsoever that the term Aryan is a racial term.
In the same manner that people from Iran are called Iranian, the Aryan people were the people of the Aryan nation, Airyana Vaeja – a relatively small country at its inception, and one that became the kingdom of Airan Vej, Airan and eventually Iran. The use of the word Aryan can be compared to the use of the word Iranian. The word Aryan is simply an older form of the word Iranian, and Iran is a multi-ethnic country.
*Note: German born philologist and orientalist, Max Müller (1823-1900) is commonly identified as the first writer – European or otherwise – to speak of an Aryan “race”. In 1848, he settled in Oxford England and never visited India. In 1853 and again in his 1861 lecture titled Science of Language, Müller referred to the Aryans as a “race of people”. Even though Müller belatedly professed to backtrack from his racial assertions, unconvincingly saying that he had confined the use of “race” to mean “a group of tribes or peoples, an ethnic group” – it wasn’t long before Müller’s “Aryan race” was made synonymous with Meiners’ and Gobineau’s “white race” together with all of Meiners’ and Gobineau’s racist implications.
Müller wrote a laudatory preface to a book by French missionary Abbe Dubois (1765-1848), who wrote, “…to make a new race of the Hindus, one would have to undermine the very foundations of their civilization, religion and polity, and by turning them into atheists and barbarians. Having accomplished this terrible upheaval, we might then perhaps offer ourselves to them as lawgivers and religious teachers.” In his preface to Dubois’ book, Müller extols the author as being “remarkably free from theological prejudice”.
In History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature (1860), Müller wrote, “History seems to teach that the whole human race required a gradual education before, in the fullness of time, it could be admitted to the truths of Christianity. All the fallacies of human reason had to be exhausted, before the light of a high truth could meet with ready acceptance.” In a letter to his wife Georgina, published in The Life and Letters of Right Honourable Friedrich Max Müller (1902) edited by Georgina Müller, Müller wrote, “The translation of the Veda will hereafter tell to a great extent on the fate of India and on the growth of millions of souls in that country. It is the root of their religion, and to show them what the root is, I feel sure, is the only way of uprooting all that has sprung from it during the last 3,000 years.” Müller wrote to the Duke of Argyll, then British Secretary of Education, “India has been conquered once, but India must be conquered again, and that second conquest should be a conquest by education.” It is within this context that Müller published his series, The Sacred Books of the East that included the Hindu Vedas and the Zoroastrian Avesta. Müller had scant respect for these texts. In another letter published by his wife he lists the superiority of one religious text over another, starting with the New Testament and Koran as the top two and several texts later ending with the Vedas and Avesta as the most inferior. (Source: Wikiquote)
French socialist and professor of anthropology at the University of Montpellier, Vacher de Lapouge(1854-1936) in his 1899 book L’Aryen et son rôle social (The Aryan and his Social Role), theorized that the superior Aryan race could be identified anthropologically by using the cephalic index (a measure of head shape), stating that the long-headed “dolichocephalic-blond” Europeans, characteristically found in northern Europe, were natural leaders, destined to rule over more “brachiocephalic” (short headed) peoples. The German origin of the Aryans was especially promoted by the archaeologist Gustaf Kossinna (1858-1931) deeply influencing Nazi ideology, who held Carl Schuchhardt (1859-1943) to be their official Nazi pre-historian.
The appropriation, theft and debasement of true Aryan identity did not stop with philologists, Nazis and other racists. Helena Blavatsky, a co-founder of the Theosophical movement expounded the fantastic notion that “The Aryan races, now varying from dark brown, almost black, red-brown-yellow, down to the whitest creamy colour,” are all part of “the Fifth Root-Race”, and (dear reader, the best is yet to come) “spring from one single progenitor,” who “lived over 18,000,000 years ago, and also 850,000 years ago – at the time of the sinking of the last remnants of the great continent of Atlantis!”
Regrettably, the legacy of Max Müller is that racialization (and by consequence racism) is latent in philology today.
Problems & Bias in Reconstructing Aryan Prehistory
Paradoxically, there is a problem with western reconstruction of Aryan prehistory that emerges from the bias of an another camp and establishment in western scholarship.
Archaeological findings are often used to make categorical statements about the prehistory of a region and this is particularly true in the reconstruction of the prehistory of Central Asia and the Pamir region – the heartland of Aryan prehistory.
On the one hand, extremely poor and destructive archaeological techniques have been used by Russian and other western archaeologists, and on the other hand there is a strong bias amongst western archaeologists and historians in maintaining the Biblical lands as the cradle of civilization.
When Raphael Pumpelly (1837-1923). a geologist from New York, proposed that Central Asia might be a cradle of civilization rather than Sumer and Mesopotamia, he and his theories were largely ignored by the western archaeological establishment – even after Pumpelly conducted archaeological excavations in what is today Turkmenistan and produced evidence of an early civilization. Pumpelly was trying to tell the world that under the mounds – the tepes or depes that dotted the landscapes in the lower reaches of the Kopet Dag mountains – was evidence of a forgotten civilization and history waiting to be discovered. It was a history that would not be found in western history books, but in Zoroastrian and Hindu religious texts: the Avesta and Rig Veda.
When archaeologists categorically assign a historical time period or era based on incomplete archaeological findings from a particular area, they give the false impression that their assignment of time periods form the history of that region. They do not.
Time periods assigned to archaeological findings at best indicate the earliest findings uncovered so far. New discoveries, discoveries yet to be made, and evidence that has been destroyed completely, make the use of words such as ‘the earliest’ hazardous. Further, civilizations do not appear out of thin air on a particular date in history. They take time to develop – perhaps thousands of years.
The focus on written history by Greek and western writers has diminished the role of oral history from other parts of the world. These writers consider eastern oral history to be more myth than history. The history in the Avesta for instance is primarily an oral history that was later put down into writing. There is a predisposed bias to discounting the accounts in the Avesta as myth even though the Avesta contains some of the earliest literature known to humankind.
Pamir / Badakhshan Region
In the east of Tajikistan, are mountains and highlands known as the Pamirs. The Tajik province in which the mountains are located is called the Kuhistani-Badakhshan (previously called Gorno-Badakhshan, a name given during the Soviet occupation of Tajikistan). Kuhistani means the land of the mountains.
The full extent of the Badakhshan (also spelt Badakshan or Badakshon) region extends beyond the borders of Tajikistan to the east, south and south-west. To the east, Badakhshan extends into land that is today part of China. To the south and south-west, Badakhshan extends into modern-day Afghanistan (see map to the right).
China’s acquisition of eastern Badakhshan came about through centuries of westward expansion beyond ancient Chin and the borders of Chin marked by the Great Wall of China. The division of Badakhshan between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, was a result of the Anglo-Russian agreement of 1873 that created a buffer strip between the Russian and British empires.
In these pages, unless otherwise specified, we will be dealing with the full extent of Badakhshan which we will call Greater Badakhshan / Badakshan, Pamir-Badakhshan or the Pamir region.
Pamirs & Zoroastrianism
The Pamir-Badakhshan region is home to very old Zoroastrian historical sites and most of the Zoroastrian historical sites we have identified so far in Tajikistan, are in the Badakhshan-Pamir region. There are also enigmatic hand and feet symbols carved into the rock of the Pamir mountains. The Pamiri consider the rocks holy, saying that holy men have stepped on these rocks in the remote past.
Candidate for the Location of Airyana Vaeja
In our discussion on the location of the original Aryan homeland, Airyana Vaeja, a strong candidate for the location of Airyana Vaeja was the general area around Tajikistan and more specifically, the Pamir-Badakhshan region. (See Location of Airyana Vaeja).
In a related page, Aryan Homeland in the Avesta, we examined references to Airyana Vaeja in the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta. In that page, we listed the sixteen nations mentioned in one of the books of the Avesta, the Vendidad. Airyana Vaeja, the Aryan homeland is the first nation in that list. Its precise location is a mystery. In the map below, the second, third and fourth nations, Sughdha, Mouru and Bakhdhi, are to the left, and the Pamir-Badakhshan region is the adjacent region to the right of the map.
|Central Asia with first Vendidad lands and possible Airyana Vaeja /Aryan homeland locale
Click to see a larger map
People, Language and Extent of the Region
|Map of the Pamir-Badakhshan region in Tajikistan, Eastern China and N. E. Afghanistan
By Marcus Hauser. (Click for a larger map)
Badakhshan (Badakshan or Badakshon) is a relatively modern (1,500 year-old) name coined by the Persian Sassanids (c.200-650 CE). Since shan / shon means place (the forerunner of stan, cf. Khorasan), Badakhshan means the place of Badak or Badakh. It is not clear who or what Badakh means. Badakh might refer to the area’s precious stones.
As we have noted above, we find historic Greater Badakhshan divided between Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and China. The border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan is the Panj river where it forms the Wakhan valley. The border between Tajikistan and China is the Sarykol Range, one of the Kunlun mountain ranges.
Rather than their division by the relatively modern borders that were drawn up for political reasons, the extent of Greater Badakhshan is more accurately defined by the historic kinship of the Pamiri people and the Pamiri dialects they speak.
The Pamiri-Badakhshani people claim to be an Iranian group related to, but distinct from, the Tajiks and other Afghans. They speak dialects of the Pamiri language, an eastern Iranian language indigenous to the region. Tajiki, and the Afghan languages of Dari and Pashtu, are sister Iranian, i.e. Aryan, languages.
The extent of the Pamir-Badakhshan region as defined by the ethno-linguistic distribution of the Pamiri-Badakhshan dialects and people, is as follows (from Atlas of Languages of Intercultural Communication in the Pacific, Asia, and the Americas By Stephen Adolphe Wurm, Peter Mühlhäusler, Darrell T. Tyron, Darrell T. Tryon. International Council for Philosophy and Humanistic Studies. Pub. Walter de Gruyter, 1996):
– In the east of the region, the Pamiri dialects of Sarikoli and Wakhi are spoken across the present Tajik-China border in the Xinjang (Xinjiang) / Kunlun Mountains. The Pamirs includes Tashkurgan and Kashgar / Kashi (presently in China) in the northeast corner (Photographs of Kashgar). The residents of Kashgar were known to have practiced Zoroastrianism and the ruins of a Zoroastrian temple can be found beside the ruins of an ancient fortress. Indeed, it is possible that some of the residents of areas in China that practice Islam today could have practiced Zoroastrianism in the past. The original Indo-Iranian inhabitants of this area have to a large extent been displaced by Turkic peoples. The Shahnameh of Ferdowsi placed Chin (China) to the east of Airan and also east of Turan (Sugd).
– In the south, the Wakhi dialect is spoken in the Wakhan / Panj valley bordered by the Hindu Kush in the south [Ivan M. Steblin-Kamenskij at Iranica, Central Asia xiii. Iranian Languages, suggests that the name Wakhan i.e. Vah-kan, is derived from Old Iranian Wahwi/Wahkshu – “good, beneficent,” an ancient river name (cf. Av. Vanguhi Daitiia, the name of a river in Airiianem Vaejah]. The Wakhi dialect is also spoken in northern Pakistan. The Vendidad nation that would have bordered the Pamiri-Badakhshan region to the south would be the seventh nation of Vaekerata (Kabul).
– In the west, the region continues to include the Panj valley as it turns north and includes lands further west, that is, the present Badakhshan province in Afghanistan. That province has its capital at Feyzabab (Faizabad) that sits of the Kokcha River. In ancient times, the Pamiri-Badakhshan lands would have extended west to the fourth Vendidad nation of Bakhdhi (Balkh).
|Historic Badakhshan / Pamir Boundaries|
– In the north, the Pamir region is bounded by a tributary of the Amu Darya (Oxus) the Surkhab / Surkhob River and Kyrgyzstan’s Alai mountains. The Surkhab is renamed downstream as the Vakhsh and upstream as the Kyzylsu / Kysyl-suu River in Kyrgyzstan. Surkh-ab and Kyzyl-suu mean Red River. Reading the Vendidad’s list of nations, at the northern and north-western boundary of the Pamirs, we find Sughdha (Sugd) – the land and nation that extended from the Fergana valley in the east to Samarkand in the west and beyond.
Nowadays, while all Tajiks are mainly Muslim, the Pamiri continue to display their distinctiveness by following the Ismaili sect of the Shia religion while the rest of the Tajiks are for the most part, Sunni Muslims.
During Taliban rule of Afghanistan in the 1990s and early 2000s, Badakhshan was the only Afghan province not controlled by the Pashtu dominant Taliban. Badakhshan was also the base of the group opposed to the Taliban, the Northern Alliance, the group that ultimately defeated the Taliban. Today, while the rest of Afghanistan is still in turmoil, Afghani Badakhshan is relatively peaceful.
(Also see Ethnic Processes in Gorno Badakhshan)
Po-i Mihr, the Feet of Mithra
|Somoni Peak. Photo: World Bank Collection at Flickr|
Tajiks call the Pamirs, Po-mir or Po-i-mihr, the Feet of Mitra, and also Bom-i-Dunyo, the Roof of the World. Mitra is an angel in Zoroastrianism and a pre-Zoroastrian Indo-Iranian deity, an asura.
The Pamirs are home to the tallest mountain in Tajikistan. The Somoni Peak in the northwest of the Pamirs has an elevation of 7,495 m (24,590 ft), and the average elevation of the Pamir peaks is about 3,965 m (about 13,000 ft).
The Pamirs are also called the Pamir knot since several mountain ranges radiate from the knot.
The Pamirs form a connecting link between the Tian Shan, Kunlun, Karakoram, Himalaya and Hindu Kush mountain ranges.
Terrain and Weather
|Photo credit: Christoph Hormann at Views of the Earth|
Badakhshan’s terrain is typified by the image on the left. The Panj River runs through the valley that stretches up from the lower left corner of the photograph curving to the right. In the part that can be seen in the photograph, the Panj River marks the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
The Pamirs of Tajikistan are to the left of the Wakhan Valley, while the Hindu Kush mountains (& Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan) are to the right of the valley. The high mountains on the horizon are the Kunlun Mountains presently in China’s Xinjiang Uygur (Turkic) Region.
The right peak (top-centre of the photograph) is the Muztagh-Ata, and the peak to Muztah-Ata’s left is Kongur-Shan.
|Photo credit: crazynomad at Flickr|
|Panj River’s Wakhan Valley & farms.
The Panj River is called the Amu Darya (Oxus) in Afghanistan
While the winters in the mountains as well as the highlands of the Murghab district of eastern Badakhshan, the Pamir Bowl, are harsh, the Pamirs are also home to temperate valleys.
While the mountains are rugged and the highlands stark, many of the valleys are fertile. The contrast in the landscape that is seen in the photograph of the Panj valley on the left, is typical.
The principle river of the Pamir-Badakhshan region is the upper reaches of the Amu Darya River, called the Panj River during its course in the south and west of the Pamir-Badakhshan region.
According to Wikipedia, the Chinese call the Pamirs ‘Congling’ meaning the Onion Range, a name derived from the wild onions growing in the region.
|Wakhan Valley Farms close-up
Photo credit: crazynomad at Flickr.
The area defined by the Pamir-Badakhshan region is roughly a square, with each side of the square bounded by a major river and a mountain range. The shape and topography is unique. It is unlike any other region in the area.
The rivers were called daryas – rivers large enough to be considered a sea or perhaps rivers that were, in the past thought to be connected to seas. The rivers flow beyond in different directions. Mountains ranges also radiate in different directions.
The Pamirs, the Himalayas and the other mountain ranges at the north of the Indian subcontinent were formed by the subduction of the Indian subcontinent plate under the Eurasian plate. The result is that earthquakes in the Pamirs are frequent and violent. Pamiri houses are constructed to cope with earthquakes. Hot springs are numerous and the tectonic forces have created gemstones and precious metals that are buried in the mountains.
The Pamir’s deposits of precious stones and metals that correspond to those described as being contained in Mount Meru, the mountain that stood at the centre of the world, in the Hindu scripture, the Vedas. Mount Meru is the equivalent of the Mount Hara Berezaiti, Airyana Vaeja’s central mountain mentioned Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta. In the Vedas, Mount Meru is described as a four sided mountain where the four sides are made from four different precious substances: the south of lapis-lazuli, the west of ruby, the north of gold and the east of silver (or crystal).
The mountains in the south of the Pamir region do indeed contain the only lapis lazuli mines known in antiquity. The other Mount Meru precious metals and stones are also found in the region (see trade and mines below).
|Historic Badakhshan / Pamir Boundaries|
From the southeast corner to the southwest corners of the Pamir-Badakhshan region, lie the Silk Road passes that provide access to the Upper Indus region and from there – the Indus plains – Hapta Hindu(seven Indus tributaries). In the southeast corner are three passes within 100 km of each other that connect the Tamrim Basin Kashgar and Tashkurgan (today, in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China) to the Gojal / Hunza River valley, Gilgit and the Upper Indus valley: from east to west, the Kunjarab Pass (4,693 m./15,397 ft.) and two ancient passes, the Mintaka (4,709 m./15,450 ft.) and Kilik (4,827 m./15,837 ft.) passes. Kunjarab come from the Wakhi Pamiri word for blood valley. Ancient traders travelled 70 km south from Tashkurgan to the Mintaka River, and from there headed some 80 km west up the Mintaka valley and pass. In the central south of the Pamirs lies the Baroghil / Broghol Pass (3,798 m./12,460 ft.) through the Hindu Kush. In the southwest corner lies the Dorah Pass (4,300 m./14,000 ft.) that today connects Badakhshan in Afghanistan with Chitral in Pakistan.
Some of the earliest trade between the Aryan nations of the Vendidad took place out of Badakhshan with its exclusive Sar-i Sang Lapis Lazuli mines on the upper reaches of the Kokcha River, a tributary of the Panj (also called Amu Darya or Oxus) exporting Lapis as far west as Mesopotamia and Egypt and as early as the 4th millennium BCE (cf. Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries by Peter Roger Stuart Moorey, p. 86). Marco Polo visited the Sar-i Sang mines during his travels along the Silk Road. The area is rich in other gemstones such as rubies and emeralds and precious metals such as silver and gold that were actively traded throughout the ages (see Gem Hunter site). One of the Pamiri settlements that centred around silver mining, Bazar-Dara, is described below.
Many of the trade roads to the upper Indus and Kashmir valleys in the adjacent Indian sub-continent, including branches of the Silk Roads to the east and west, passed through the Wakhan corridor. This gave the Badakhshanis access to the Indian sub-continent. It also gave them a controlling position of the trade roads and one of the Zoroastrian era forts called the Zamr-i-Atish-Parast, or Fortress of the Fire Worshippers, at Yamchun served this function. It also formed a second line of defence for the Pamir / Badakhshan region to the north, the first line of defence being the Hindu Kush mountains.
|Bazar-Dara Valley Site Map
Click for a larger map
In the central Pamirs, above the banks of the river Ak-Dzhilga / Ak-Jilga, in the valley of Murghab, are the remains of remote settlements and a mining complex called Bazar-Dara and Ak-Jilga. The Badakhshan region has historically been famous from Egypt to China, the steppes to India for its gems and precious metals. Silver was mined in Bazar-Dara and traders who plied the Silk Roads came to Bazar-Dara and stayed in its caravanserai while conducting their business. The settlements and mining complex are located at a height of 4,000 m. The six sites, accessible only by foot or helicopter, are dated 10th to 11th century ACE in the middle valley, and 5th century BCE in the upper valley.
About 1,200 – 1,500 people lived in the settlement which included an administrative complex, a fire-temple, and a bath with sub-floor (kan) heating. The size fits the first level of a Jamshidi Vara (see above).
Water was obtained from small wells and skilfully designed water basins. In this region, the soil is frozen most of the year and trees cannot grow. The large building that is believed to have functioned as a medieval caravanserai, also has Vara-like features.
A webpage titled Geo-Archaeological Survey of Ancient Metallurgic Centres of the Bazar-Dara Valley contains further information on this ancient Pamiri settlement.
|Bazar-Dara Caravanserai ruins|